The fight of their lives, by Tony Travers

10 Apr 08
The two main parties are slugging it out for control of London on May 1, and both have everything to play for. A Boris Johnson win would show that the Tories are electable again, a Ken Livingstone victory would boost faltering Labour

11 April 2008

The two main parties are slugging it out for control of London on May 1, and both have everything to play for. A Boris Johnson win would show that the Tories are electable again, a Ken Livingstone victory would boost faltering Labour

The London mayoral race has become a contest with national implications. What started life as the capital's four-yearly Punch & Judy show has evolved into a war-by-proxy between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron. But the race for City Hall has implications across the country, telling us about the likelihood of a Conservative victory at the next general election and also about the Tories' approach to public services.

National press and television fascination with the Ken v Boris struggle can also be seen as a justification for ex-PM Tony Blair's enthusiasm for elected mayors. The turnout at the 2000 and 2004 elections was only about 35%, which was hardly a ringing endorsement for the concept of revived local leadership. But with the neck-and-neck race now before us, there must be a good chance of a higher voting total.

The mayor of London is a powerful figure. First, a direct mandate from a city of 7.5 million people is epic by any standards. Ken Livingstone has used the legitimacy offered by the role to great effect on the capital's behalf. He has convinced the Treasury to fund a massive subsidy for London's buses, plus another vast cash outlay for the 2012 Olympics. Crossrail has more or less been given the go-ahead. Indeed, the success of the mayor in attracting resources for projects is an object lesson for other regions and cities.

Second, the mayor has responsibility for much of the capital's huge transport network, including, increasingly, parts of the commuter railway. He sets a legally binding city-wide plan that determines issues such as densities, policy towards tall buildings and the delivery of affordable housing. The Mayor's Office also has significant influence over the police and emergency services, setting budgets for both. In total, the mayor's gross budget is £11bn, which is a very large sum.

So this is not a contest about a non-job. Moreover, the capital matters to the rest of the UK. Like it or not, London is the shop window and gateway to the rest of the country. It is one of the world's leading post-industrial cities, comparable only with New York. Its economy might at present appear a little over-dependent on financial and business services, but there is no immediate sign that there will be a significant economic collapse. Even if the City has two or three bad years, there are plenty of other sections of the economy that can expand. And overseas investors still like the place, despite the chancellor's bungling efforts to tax non-domiciled residents.

For Livingstone's Conservative challenger, the stakes are high. Having been considered a joke when he first declared his candidacy, Boris Johnson has found himself in the implausible position of frontrunner. With his 'Cripes….er, I don't know' approach to big questions, he has had to travel a long way to look more serious. Aided and abetted by the Tories' Australian political expert, Lynton Crosby, Johnson has produced a number of policies. Following views expressed in opinion polling, he has also sounded tough on youth crime.

Brown has endorsed his old foe Livingstone, albeit though gritted teeth. Cameron has campaigned with Johnson, recreating a team that first met at university. For the Conservatives, the May 1 London poll is a dry run for the general election that lies ahead. Are 'toffs' like Johnson and Cameron capable of being elected in the meritocratic Britain of 2008? Can the Tories finally throw off their 'nasty' image to win in liberal multicultural London?

Questions of policy and tax are surely important, even in an election dominated by celebrity and personality. Livingstone, as the incumbent, has well-known policies. He has put the environment at the front of his manifesto offer, along with a commitment to increase the number of 'affordable' homes. He has stressed his competence to deliver major projects such as the Olympics and Crossrail. The Livingstone team has also underlined the mayor's approach to the politics of race and religion in a city as complex as London.

Johnson has published a series of proposals that do not differ widely from those of his Labour rival. The congestion charge would stay, although the new £25 charge on 'gas-guzzlers' would not be introduced. For housing developments, the proportion of 'affordable' homes required would be slightly lower than Livingstone's 50% target. Importantly, Johnson has stated that he would give the boroughs a far greater say over planning. A system of 'restorative justice' would be introduced to target young people who behave badly on buses. He has also promised to pursue a 'no strike' agreement with the Tube unions.

The biggest differences between Livingstone and Johnson are in their approach to growth and development. Ken has championed a developer-led 'predict and provide' policy, complete with tall buildings and rapid population growth. Boris, by transferring decisions to the boroughs, would allow local anti-development voices to have greater influence. As in national politics, London is witnessing a political contest where the candidate of the 'Left' is probably more pro-business and development than that of the 'Right'. Isn't politics marvellous?

What of the other candidates? The apparent two-horse race between Livingstone and Johnson has eclipsed the efforts of Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick and the Greens' Sian Berry. Paddick, as a senior ex-police officer, is a rare example of a leading public servant running for high public office. His campaign has been serious and he is clearly a decent man. But it looks as if he will face a big squeeze from the Labour and Conservative candidates. However, if the final result is very close, LibDem and Green second preference votes might decide who wins.

The Greens, like the Liberal Democrats, will use their mayoral campaign to raise awareness of the parallel London Assembly election taking place. Both parties could benefit if the Labour vote falls back. Given that a form of proportional representation is used – as in Scotland and Wales – there is a good chance that the smaller parties will do well in the London election.

However, there is also a fair chance that the British National Party could win one of the 25 seats. After the BNP's success in Barking & Dagenham in the 2006 borough elections, it is not impossible to imagine them winning their first seat on the Assembly.

London is often seen as very different from the rest of the UK. The metropolitan 'chattering classes' perpetuate an image of a city that is not like Cumbria or Scotland or Bristol. Yet, over a full political cycle – say 30 years – the capital is likely to vote in ways that broadly represent Britain as a whole. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all have their strongholds and can turn out large blocks of votes.

Opinion polls have suggested a lead for Johnson, although the scale of advantage has varied significantly. Livingstone is a tactical expert with huge experience who cannot be written off easily. His supporters have paraded some of Johnson's past journalistic and editorial output as evidence that he has condoned views about race that fit ill with a cosmopolitan city. Livingstone has had to put up with allegations from both the press and his opponents about inappropriate use of City Hall funds. It will certainly be a dirty fight.

There is little doubt that London's dominance, coupled with the celebrity nature of the candidates, has led the national media to give increasing amounts of time to what is, in the end, a local election. The razzmatazz of US-style politics captures the media (and bloggers') interest. The capital is therefore given even more attention than it usually receives. Could other cities or city-regions in Britain benefit from a reputational advantage if they adopted a directly elected mayor?

This question is timely because there is evidence that the government is showing renewed interest in mayors, possibly linked to the implementation of sub-national economic development in the context of the recent consultation document on the subject. Transport is already the object of sub-regional reform. There has been a lobby in Liverpool for a mayor and there is little doubt that the first major city outside the capital to adopt a directly elected figurehead would, like London, receive Whitehall resources to help the reform along.

But the main advantage for Liverpool or Manchester or Birmingham would be created by the attention that would focus on the city when its mayoral elections took place. As in London, the media would suddenly forget their antipathy for local democracy and start to take an interest in politics beyond Westminster. A city-regional mayor would be another possibility, creating a metropolitan structure analogous to the Greater London Authority. It would, at the very least, be good to see an experiment in another big English or Scottish city or city-region.

Of course, there are local elections in all the English metropolitan authorities this year, as well as in some unitary and district councils. All of Wales goes to the polls. As most elections in England are in thirds, there are limited possibilities for change of control. There is not, thus far, a single issue dominating the local contests in the way, for example, that refuse collection did a couple of years ago. It is still possible that a subject such as gun/knife crime could become salient in the last weeks of the contest. Inevitably, pundits will use all of this year's results to divine messages about the next general election.

Brown's recent troubles might yet spill over into the campaigning. The prime minister's new emphasis on public service reform and his efforts to create a more powerful Number 10 machine have taken us back towards the Blair years. Labour supporters are probably a bit confused as to whether their message is 'things are different' or 'steady as she goes'. But if Labour's national opinion poll ratings were to begin to recover, the outlook for the party's councillors and Livingstone would certainly improve.

2008 will be a make-or-break year for the major political parties. If Johnson becomes mayor of London, it will look ever more likely that a Conservative government is, for the first time in more than a decade, a possibility. If Livingstone hangs on, it will be the best boost for Labour since Brown's short-lived political honeymoon when he took over as PM last year.

There really is an air of knock-about theatricality in the contest between Livingstone and Johnson. It is worth remembering that Punch & Judy shows also feature characters such as a clown, a policeman, a baby, a dog, a ghost and a crocodile. Readers can decide for themselves which mayoral candidate most closely resembles which character.

The result of the election is, however, a serious matter. The new mayor will run major public services. Londoners – and the rest of the country – deserve a leader who brings credit on the capital while delivering good services with the minimum local tax. The result might be so close there has to be a cliff-hanging recount. Who said British politics was boring?

Tony Travers is the director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics


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