Personality politics

London voters will now have received the candidate leaflet for Thursday’s mayoral election. Reading some of the policies in the document, you wonder whether to laugh or cry. Among the many powers that the Mayor of London does not have are the power to stop immigration, to pull troops out of Iraq, to declare St George’s Day a national holiday, to promote marriage, or to insist all employers pay the London Living Wage.

But the London mayoralty is not really about policy. Try as they might, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are hard-pushed to find serious areas of disagreement: pledging to \”consult residents…on whether we should keep the Western [congestion charge] extension\”, as Johnson has promised, is hardly an ideological rallying call.

The London Mayor is primarily a city manager: he or she needs to be able to represent the capital, to strike deals, to make things work better. This means having a clear idea of what London needs, and the political smarts to be able to lobby, haggle and argue with a jealous central government to get it. It’s personality politics, but it’s far from trivial.

This is where a difference begins to emerge between the two front-runners. Ken Livingstone has secured more powers for the Mayor, commitment to Crossrail, and billions of pounds of investment to fund the London 2012 Games and legacy. Admittedly this has been a Labour mayor working with a Labour government, but the relationship has not always been an easy one.

An incumbent always has the advantage of pointing to his record (though Livingstone\’s opponents have found plenty of ammunition there too). But some of the signals sent out by the Boris Johnson campaign are worrying. While Livingstone’s inner circle of advisors are not people who feel particularly at home in the Labour Party headquarters, Johnson’s campaign has been closely managed by some of his party’s top strategists, from Lynton Crosby to Nick Boles.

In addition, some newspapers have pointed to Johnson as a poster-boy for socially-liberal cameronite conservatism, a one-man vanguard for the coming general election. Johnson is insisting that he is his own man (just as Steve Norris did in previous elections). But it is hard to see in him the same cussedly independent streak, and willingness to denounce his ‘comrades’, that has endeared Livingstone to so few people in his own party and, at least in previous elections, to so many people in London.

Whatever policies the mayoral candidates espouse, the test of their mettle will be how they deal with government. Whether the government in question is Conservative or Labour should be almost immaterial. The capital needs a Mayor whose interests lie in securing the best for London, not in letting City Hall be used as a second front in Westminster’s wars.

One thought on “Personality politics”

  1. As Dave Hill pointed out here, among the many reasons to vote for Ken, he does have a proven track record in taking on the government and winning difficult arguments. But I fear the Ken Era may be at a close …


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