Does it matter who wins today’s election for mayor of London? To the candidates, certainly. If Labour’s Ken Livingstone loses his bid to return to the office he held from 2000 to 2008, that will probably mean the end of a political career that began in the Greater London Council, where Livingstone proved such a thorn in the side of Margaret Thatcher that she abolished municipal government all across Britain just to get rid of him. When Tony Blair returned self-government to London, Livingstone returned to the political stage, proving just as annoying to Blair.
Livingstone was a brilliant mayor. It wasn’t just getting through the congestion charge (a toll on cars entering central London)—something Mike Bloomberg and all his billions couldn’t manage in Manhattan. Or the successful introduction of the Oyster travelcards. Or his opposition to Blair and his successor Gordon Brown’s idiotic (and ruinously expensive) devotion to Public-Private Partnerships to finance capital projects. Or the brilliant redesign of Trafalgar Square from death-spiral traffic island to one of the world’s great public stages. Or even the truly statesmanlike way he kept the city together in the wake of the July 7, 2005, bomb attacks. Livingstone understood, more than any other British politician, the way cities worked, what they needed to grow and prosper and why people came to live in them—sometimes at great cost and across enormous distances.
Livingstone was a genius at leveraging the minimal powers granted the office—chiefly over public transport, urban planning and police numbers. He pushed through the congestion charge, he once told The Nation, because it was his only chance for revenue that didn’t depend on Whitehall’s largesse.
But like Ed Koch, the urban politician he resembled in so many ways (apart from their actual politics, which were poles apart), his abrasiveness eventually cost him re-election. Boris Johnson, the American-born, Eton-educated Tory who replaced him four years ago had the great advantage of not being taken seriously. When Livingstone called a Jewish reporter “a concentration camp guard” you could hear the wailing from Westminster to the Upper West Side. When it emerged that Johnson had written an article describing the Queen being greeted by “flag-waving piccaninnies,” everyone just said “Oh, that’s just Boris.”
Yet Johnson’s term has been far from the expected disaster. His self-appointed role as tribune of the plutocrats can be galling, and Londoners who depend on public transport have had to pay more than they might under Livingstone, but as a cyclist I’ve been glad to see the end of the notorious “bendy busses”—sixty-foot-long juggernauts perfect for Amsterdam’s segregated transit lanes but terrifying on London’s narrow streets. Johnson has also proved willing to defy his party on immigration and housing policies that would force the poor to leave London.
Brian Paddick, the gay former assistant police commissioner running on the Liberal Democrat line, managed just under 10 percent of the vote last time around—before his party got into bed with the Tories. This time he’s expected to finish barely ahead of the right-wing fringe UK Independence Party and the Greens.
The result has been a two-man race that has been compared, all too appropriately, with a pair of drunks at a wedding. Although only one of us can vote here, The Nation’s London bureau is divided on which would be worse—four more years of Boris braying on behalf of Britain’s oppressed bankers or four more years of Ken’s overweening arrogance. It wasn’t just the way Ken talked out of one side of his mouth about “rich bastards” who avoid paying their fair share of taxes—and then turned out to funnel his own considerable media earnings through a corporate shell. There was also his long track record of high-handed contempt for even constructive criticism—as borne out most recently, and most painfully, in his disastrous meeting with Jewish Labour supporters desperate for a few encouraging words.
Livingstone’s proposals to cut bus and Tube fares, buy energy in bulk (and pass the savings on to Londoners) and build affordable housing are all clearly preferable to Boris Johnson’s platform of trickle-down economics in which a supposedly resurgent financial sector serves as the engine of prosperity for the whole country. But elections are about more than policy choices—particularly mayoral elections.
For me the Jewish Question proved decisive. I just can’t support a candidate who views me and my kind with contempt—or even calculated disregard. Besides, if Boris does win, the politician with most to fear would be David Cameron.
But the bureau’s British member held her nose and voted for Livingstone, saying she couldn’t bear to help re-elect a Tory mayor. You pays your money and you takes your choice.