The Race for City Hall

By Roland Bensted

An outside observer to the race for Mayor of London could be forgiven for wondering how little has changed since 2008. With the election for what is sometimes said to be the second most powerful role in British politics due to take place on 3 May alongside the election of members to the Greater London Assembly, the three main parties have selected the same candidates who contested the May 2008 Mayoral ballot. Yet, outside of the Mayoral race itself, the UK and London, have faced significant economic and social turbulence since the May 2008 ballot. 

The UK’s economy is still suffering the effects of a significant downturn that followed the financial crises of 2007-8. London is something of a paradox in that it is both the UK’s wealthiest city by far, and also contains significant concentrations of poverty. Unemployment is higher than in 2008, and the economy is still not growing. In 2011 London and many other UK cities also suffered their worst rioting in several decades. And London’s Metropolitan Police has twice changed its Commissioner since 2008.

Although many of the issues that are most pressing to people’s lives, such as the economy and health care, are within the purview of central government, the Mayor is far more than a figurehead for the UK’s capital city. With responsibility for an annual budget of close to £15 billion, and particular leadership on transport and policing issues within the capital, the role has genuine clout. The Mayor also has some autonomy on other matters such as housing, regeneration, the environment, and culture and tourism. And being the public face of London to the rest of the world in a year that London hosts the Olympic Games and the Queen’s diamond jubilee is no small deal.

With this in mind, it is perhaps disappointing, if not surprising, that much media and public attention has focused, as it did in 2008, on the personalities of the only two candidates capable of winning: Conservative Boris Johnson, the current Mayor, and Labour’s Ken Livingstone, who are engaged in what appears to be a closely fought and somewhat acrimonious campaign. The key difference this time is that they have reversed roles as incumbent and insurgent. The closeness of the race between the two leading candidates suggests that the second choices that voters make under the supplementary vote electoral system could prove decisive.

Johnson and Livingstone are often described as mavericks, whose electoral success may owe as much to their personal appeal as to the party they belong to. Both regularly veer off-message, making them prone to gaffes and sometimes to causing offence. To their supporters, this is all part of their attraction; in an era of polished and media-savvy politicians who stick closely to the party’s official script, supporters see it as refreshing to have candidates who are not afraid to show their individuality. To their detractors, both Johnson and Livingstone are accused variously of being egotistical, unprofessional, or even bigoted. Others still lament that because of the inevitable focus on their personalities and individual attributes or liabilities, there is less time to debate policy issues. For example, the head of one housing charity has pointed out that more time at one of the mayoral debates in April 2012 was devoted to discussion of Ken Livingstone’s personal tax affairs than to the issue of housing in London.

The electoral success of these charismatic but flawed individuals is very important to their parties. With some of the initial public enthusiasm for the Conservative-led national government’s austerity measures appearing to wane, the coup of winning the office of London’s Mayor would give momentum, a most vital of political commodities, to a Labour party that, although ahead in recent national polls, is far from loved by the electorate and recently took a battering at a by-election. A Conservative win would be seen to consolidate their position as the major party of government in the UK.

Perhaps the most surprising of the main party candidates for Mayor is Brian Paddick of the Liberal Democrats. A former senior Metropolitan Police officer who emphasises his strength on law and order alongside liberal social values, Paddick finished a distant third in 2008 and, according to most polls, appears set to make another underwhelming impact this time around. This may not be altogether surprising, given the overall unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats nationwide, but some may be surprised that the party did not select an alternative candidate.

Although some commentators have indicated that it is refreshing to have an independent candidate - Siobhan Benita- running (there are also candidates from three smaller parties: BNP, Greens, and UKIP) there are fewer names on the ballot paper than last time around. And although the supplementary voting system brings into play second preferences, it cannot be accurately described as proportional representation: only the Conservative or Labour parties have a realistic chance of winning.

Given London’s importance to the UK as a whole - economically, politically, and culturally - the Mayor’s relationship with the UK’s central government is particularly important. On this score, Boris Johnson has claimed to Londoners that he is in an advantageous position. Ken Livingstone, meanwhile, can point to his eight years as Mayor from 2000- 2008, and earlier leadership of the Greater London Council.

The race will be close and will be important to both the Conservative and Labour parties. Yet some voters will feel frustrated that the same two candidates who stood last time are once again engaged in personality politics when more important issues are at stake.


23 April 2012