Londoners are voting — at time of writing (11.30pm AEST; 2.30pm GMT) — on who should be their Mayor for the coming four years; whilst a diversion from an Australian focus, I want to make some comment and reflect on the likely re-election of the man known simply as “Boris.”
After four years as Mayor of London, incumbent Boris Johnson (pictured) appears set to easily retain his position in local government elections taking place across Britain today, although many of his Conservative Party colleagues in other councils across the country are likely to encounter heavier weather at the polling stations, with up to 500 of them tipped to lose their seats.
With claims of descent from Turkish aristocracy, a reputation as an eccentric, a ferocious temper, rumours of serial infidelity and something of a cult of personality surrounding him, Johnson is — at first glance — an unlikely candidate for public office.
Yet eleven years after replacing Michael Heseltine as the member for Henley in the House of Commons — and after four years as Mayor of London — Johnson has emerged as a formidable political entity in his own right; one of that rarest of breeds of politicians universally referred to by his christian name, and a possible successor to British PM David Cameron when the time comes.
Johnson’s political career has been colourful; twice last decade, when the Conservative Party was in Opposition, he served briefly in shadow Cabinet; the first of these tenures under then-leader Michael Howard was abruptly terminated upon Howard’s suspicion Johnson had lied about an extra-marital affair; the second, under David Cameron, was also marked by rumours of an affair, but on that occasion he survived.
As a candidate for the mayoralty prior to the 2008 election, he was opposed by Cameron, who felt he was unsuitable; however, under the guidance of Australian campaign supremo Lynton Crosby, Johnson ran an effective campaign, defeating the incumbent Mayor Ken Livingstone on his first attempt.
Johnson’s first term as Mayor has been relatively successful; crime rates in the City have fallen, and Police numbers increased; alcohol consumption banned on London’s trains; a strong lead on environmental issues; and the City readied for this year’s Olympic Games.
His opponent today is again Ken “Red Ken” Livingstone, so-called on account of his left-wing, tax-and-spend, socialist beliefs. Livingstone was ejected from the mayoralty in 2008 in part as a result of the unpopularity of the then government of Gordon Brown, and faces an uphill battle today.
Part of the problem is that he has been around for decades; now approaching 70, it was more than 30 years ago that he first became Leader of the Greater London Council (GLC), a predecessor body to the present London Assembly. The GLC was abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1986, ostensibly in the interests of devolving power to local communities at council, but in practice the abolition ridded Thatcher of a detested adversary who was using the GLC to build himself a rival centre of power.
Livingstone instead took a seat in the House of Commons for Labour, was passed over for endorsement as the Labour mayoral candidate in 2000, but stood as an Independent anyway and won; this temporarily led to his expulsion from the Labour Party, although he was adopted as its candidate for re-election in 2004.
Today, fully 20% of polled Labour voters have stated they will not vote for Livingstone; half of those plan to vote directly for Boris instead. “Red Ken” is widely unpopular now, even (and especially) among Labour voters, and it is something of an indictment that with a Conservative government in office at the national level languishing in all reputable opinion polls, Livingstone — in London’s beating heart — is barely competitive.
Livingstone’s centrepiece election promise is a pledge to drastically cut fares for public transport. This pledge is deceptive; the Transport for London Authority (TfL) has significant cash reserves on its books, which makes the promise deliverable; the only catch is that the money TfL holds is earmarked for infrastructure maintenance and construction of new lines, rolling stock and so forth. In other words, Red Ken’s plan borrows from tomorrow to deliver populism today; his opponents have seen through the ruse, and their message has left Livingstone’s campaign adrift.
The election for the Mayor of London is more an interest piece for me than anything else; whilst British politics at the national level is a great interest of mine (and my knowledge of it, at the risk of immodesty, is considerable), local governance in the UK is more an interest of a passing nature, aside from the overlaps between the two.
But Boris is Boris…people love him or hate him, and I think he is great; I look forward to waking tomorrow morning (Friday, or late Thursday night in the UK) to the news that he has been re-elected as virtually every reputable opinion poll in London has suggested for many months now.
And when next in the UK — probably in July — I look forward to following, for a week or so at least, his exploits in much greater detail.
(P.S. Readers, thank you for entertaining this indulgence…back to the “usual” channel tomorrow…)