The Null Device
In a few hours, Londoners will go to the polls to elect their next Mayor and councillors. The Mayor is that of Greater London, who administers matters above the separate boroughs but below the level of Westminster. The post was held by a younger and more radical Ken Livingstone in the 1980s, before Thatcher abolished it; when the Blair government restored it, Livingstone won it back and held it for a few terms, before being toppled, at the last election, by the floppy-haired, mildly eccentric Tory Boris Johnson.
A number of candidates are running this year; the Greens, the Lib Dems (running ex-police commissioner Brian Paddick), the far right, and an independent who, unlike most of the others, wants a third runway at Heathrow. The main race, however, is shaping up to be a rematch between Boris and Ken. Two likeable and/or loathsome outsized personalities, holding the banners of their respective tribes and ideologies. (A few days ago, Johnson had a lead in polling, though it's said to have narrowed somewhat since then.)
In the red corner, Ken Livingstone needs no introduction. While less radical than during the wars of the Thatcher Era, he still wears his socialist convictions on his sleeve. Which can be good, when it comes to commitment to public transport, forward planning of infrastructure (something the free market isn't all that good at) and attempting to mitigate some of the rising inequality in high-Gini London, though is somewhat more sketchy when it comes to grand sweeping statements on the public dime. Livingstone has, in the past, used his theoretically strictly local seat as a base for foreign policy, drawing the Greater London Authority into a (symbolic) alliance with Venezuela's autocratic Chavez regime, on the pretext of providing free transport to the poor. More recently, he seems to have taken a leaf out of George Galloway's playbook in trying to court the Islamist vote, expounding on Palestine whenever visiting constituencies with large Muslim populations, bashing Jews and making suspiciously dog-whistle-like statements about gays. Oh, and he held down a job presenting on the Iranian propaganda channel Press TV; perhaps we can expect those good honorary socialists, the Islamic Republic of Iran, to sponsor bus passes for the poor if he wins?
In the blue(-blooded) corner is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a character even more fanciful than his name would suggest, and not without his controversies. Upon election, he did scrap a lot of Livingstone-era public transport plans (such as the cross-river tram), though has avoided the sorts of red-meat pro-motorist culture-war policies some other right-wing mayors (such as the one in Toronto) have pursued. Not only did London's bike lanes remain, but Johnson, himself a cyclist, expanded support for cycling in the city (albeit with the sponsorship of Barclays, though that presumably ticks the piss-off-the-Left box). The Observer's architecture correspondent Rowan Moore has assessed Johnson's record on public works, and found it to be fairly moderate and generally sensible, if leaning a bit towards glitz and spectacle in places. Of course, one criticism has been that a lot of the projects were started by Ken Livingstone, with Johnson coasting by when they were finished for a photo opportunity. That is certainly a valid criticism of some things, such as the Overground and the launch of Crossrail; the case against Johnson's claim to the London cycle hire scheme, commonly known as the “Boris bikes” (though some earnestly right-on types call them “Ken's conveyance”) is less clear, though. While Livingstone did talk about setting up a Paris-style bike hire scheme, there is little evidence of anything having actually happened towards one until Johnson's term. And then there is the new Routemaster bus remake and the proposal for the “Boris Island” airport in the Thames Estuary to replace Heathrow (which is either a brilliant idea or utterly daft, depending on whom one asks).
More controversial are the symbolic statements. While Livingstone has allied his office with the actual and honorary socialist freedom fighters of the world, Johnson's statements have gone the other way. At times, he has taken up the cause of opposition to “political correctness” (commonly a way of ostensibly defending freedom of speech and the ability to take a robust joke whilst also dog-whistling to bigots that one stands with them) perhaps a little too enthusiastically at times, at one point, scrapping a multicultural festival because of its anti-racism message. Johnson has also denounced the Occupy protesters, calling them “hemp-smoking, fornicating hippies in crusty little tents”, a choice of words which, regardless of its accuracy, seems to show a haughty disdain for those who think that rising inequality is a bad thing. (Johnson's professed contempt for the Occupy movement, incidentally, is not shared by other members of the centre-right, including Germany's pro-austerity chancellor Angela Merkel.)
During the last election, this blog came out against Boris Johnson. This time, however, we will not be endorsing, or disendorsing, either candidate; there are good reasons for not voting for either. While Johnson is a Tory, and thus, as the common calculus goes, morally equivalent to Hitler, he is a far more moderate Tory than he looked before the last election. And while Livingstone's policy credentials are a bit bolder (with the exception of fancy buses and island airports, of course), some of his symbolic positions are somewhat concerning. For what it's worth, my first preference won't be going to either of them (the Greens are in with a chance, though).