Skip to comments.Every city needs a Ken v Boris show – it brings local politics back to life. (Mayor of London race)
Posted on 04/20/2008 8:43:25 AM PDT by lowbuck
The Tory mayoral candidate, Boris Johnson, was announcing a wheeze. He would remove free bus passes from unruly children but they could earn them back through community service. Ken Livingstone, his Labour opponent, stepped to the podium to reply and declared it a great idea that he would steal.
Johnson sat dumbfounded, his mouth open. But what sort of idiot wouldnt steal a good idea when they heard it, said the mischievous Livingstone.
The people of London have been treated to three months of this sort of Clinton versus Obama backchat, with policies hurled back and forth and personalities stripped bare. The candidates have exchanged badinage, adjusted each others clothes in public and threatened to punch each others noses.
I have counted 16 encounters between Livingstone, Johnson and Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat, together on a platform or in a television studio somewhere in the capital. Halls have been packed, a far cry from the handful of party faithful at most local government meetings. If nothing else, the London mayoralty has raised hustings from the dead.
The campaign to elect a new London mayor on May 1 is unprecedented in British politics. Media coverage has been nationwide - and indeed international, in last weeks New Yorker magazine. Daily papers that took no interest in local government have run investigations and editorials. Barely a columnist has remained silent on Boris versus Ken, rare among politicians in being known by their Christian names. The London Evening Standard has been stridently for Boris, The Guardian more subtly for Ken.
Even the Westminster lobby, contemptuous of the local, has been forced to mug up on congestion charges, bendy buses, street policing and the dubious entrails of something called the London Development Agency. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have gone on polls, which have varied wildly but mostly put Johnson just ahead.
Those of us who lobbied Tony Blair before the 1997 election for directly elected mayors did so because we thought nothing else was likely to revive a morbid local democracy. We were right. Blair bought the argument but in 1999 said bitterly: I gave you a mayor for London and look what you gave me in return, bloody Livingstone.
Blair had no idea what real democracy can unleash. The apostle of charismatic centralism could not see the power of charismatic localism. By turning the spotlight on the individual it played to Livingstones populist strength and allowed him to win as an independent.
Within four years Blair was forced into the humiliation of embracing him, as has Gordon Brown with a peg on his nose. The citizens of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol and elsewhere should be eating their hearts out. They denied themselves mayors and opted instead for the devil they knew: even tighter local party control under a cabinet system. They have been rewarded with a decline in democracy and more central and regional control. They are no more content with their public services.
The gains to London from an elected mayoralty are hard to disentangle from the performance of the eight years of Livingstones incumbency, but they are undeniable. The democratic potency awarded the office secured an astronomical £1 billion subsidy for Londons buses and probably three times that amount for the giant Olympics and Crossrail projects.
In no other British city would a leader have dared to proceed (for better or worse) with the congestion charge. Nor have Labour home secretaries felt strong enough to cap Livingstones extra spending on the police, as they have police authorities in other areas. Having won the argument but initially lost the battle against Browns privatised Tube, Livingstone has now localised it de facto by taking over the failed Metronet consortium.
Like him or loathe him, Livingstone has established the concept of city government as an entity in the American sense, in contrast to the urban cabalism of which he was previously a notorious exponent. London is no longer town but city.
While it is ludicrous for Livingstone to castigate Margaret Thatcher for policies that now enable him to claim credit for London being the No 1 world business centre, he has renounced his left-wing stance to keep it so. He defended tax privileges for nondomiciled residents and said he would cross Tube strikers picket lines.
In many respects Labour is fielding a more right-wing candidate than the Tories. Livingstone is strongly pro-developer. In eight years he has done little to clean up Londons physical environment comparable, say, with Paris, Amsterdam or Barcelona. Instead he has pushed through a plague of speculative skyscrapers and what Rowan Moore of the Architecture Foundation calls massive commercial developments . . . high quality, well maintained, privately controlled spaces outside which there is a sea of public grot.
Livingstone seeks to concentrate more power in his office and curb the boroughs. Johnson prefers low-rise and conservation and would return planning powers to the boroughs. Livingstone is not keen on open democracy and criticism. He has blown some £2 billion on the London Development Agency run by his friends for purposes as opaque as they appear unaudited.
The mayor concurs with the Home Offices diversion of police resources into public security, while Johnson emphasises such innovations as restorative justice. Livingstone claims to want more affordable housing (undefined) but has achieved little. It is likely that on housing and green taxes he and Johnson would differ only at the margin.
Despite desperate attempts by the Livingstone camp to portray Johnson as somehow racist, nobody running for mayor in Europes most diverse city can afford to be anything but multicultural. As Johnson has found with his past Thatcherite allegiance and Livingstone with the far left and the wilder shores of Islam, both are vulnerable to suspect supporters.
All direct election comes with warnings attached. Mayors tend to run closed shops staffed by cronies, such as Livingstones six-figure salaried socialists. He himself once said of mayors, corruption tends to flourish the longer they are able to hold onto power.
They are hard to keep in check, especially with a weak London assembly with no clear territorial base. Londons constitution needs reform. The omission of a two-term limit from the London Government Act was an astonishing oversight. The most powerful and to me overwhelming argument for not casting a vote for Livingstone is that nobody should rule a city for 12 years. This should be a matter not of debate but the law.
Clearly the attention paid to London is due in part to the eccentric characters of Livingstone and Johnson, but there have been civic eccentrics before who have carried none of the firepower of direct election. Neither of these two men would be anyones first choice of civic executive, though for Livingstone to accuse Johnson of lacking administrative competence is pure cheek given his record.
The so-called new politics relies heavily on personality, on comparing Blair with Brown and Brown with David Cameron. Whatever the constitutional form, occupancy of Downing Street is little different in practice from presidency; but this is not just the democracy of celebrity. Personality is an active vehicle for publicising policy and generating debate. This is true of London today to an extent unknown in other British cities.
Next month some 160 councils in England and Wales are also being elected. They will do well to get a third of their electors to show the slightest interest, despite eight years of new localist talk at Westminster. One law after another has been passed, supposedly promoting local politics. These are purely consultative, giving civic leaders no scope for policy discretion and electors no flexibility over finance.
Only London is different. Elected mayors may terrify politicians, which is why they oppose them tooth and nail, but Londoners have tasted the long-forbidden fruit of participation and seen benefits flow. After such a festival of democracy, they will be in no hurry to turn back the clock but rather cry to the world, come on in, the waters fine.
Maybe Richard Quest should jump into that race.
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