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.