Inertia creeps

I was in Chicago last weekend, at an event sponsored by the Council for the United States and Italy. The conference was about the challenges of city growth – housing, transport, environmental sustainability, government – and involved people from public and private sectors, academia, the military, and non-governmental organisations.

One theme that emerged was scepticism about the ability of elected city leaders to commit to long-term change, given the short-term imperative of electoral cycles. Some of us from public sector backgrounds suggested that this may not be as much of a problem as it seemed: given the much-criticised inertia of bureaucracies, 180-degree reverses in policy were much rarer than electoral rhetoric would suggest.

Which brings me to Boris Johnson\’s retreat from his plans to cancel the western extension of London\’s congestion charging zone. Despite commissioning a fresh consultation exercise, the capital costs of redrawing the zone, and the loss of revenue that would follow, clearly seemed too onerous. You can\’t imagine that any mayor other than Ken Livingstone would have introduced congestion charging in 2000, but now it is in place, it looks like it\’s here to stay.

Similarly, Labour did little to undo the Conservative settlement of the 1980s and 1990s, with the exception of some trade union legislation, and indeed built on many of the elements that they had most strenuously opposed in opposition. And you can only wonder whether an incoming Conservative administration would undo much of the current government\’s programme, from ID cards to Bank of England independence, against which they have so heartily inveighed.

Inertia is a mixed blessing. I railed against it when I was younger and today my views remain largely partisan (bureaucrats can be either valiant voices for common sense or obstructive dullards, depending on context). Famously frustrating to politicians like Tony Blair, inertia does perhaps serve to dissuade incoming governments from spending too much time unstitching their predecessors\’ policies.

Rather than an erratic see-saw of reversals, politics becomes a relatively smooth progression of cumulative change, for good or ill, moving on slowly. Perhaps, when Tony Blair complained of \”scars on his back\”, it was a back-handed tribute to the ability of the civil service (where nobody ever gets sacked for doing nothing) to temper change with continuity, to save us from relentless alternation.

This is conservative, to be sure, but \’conservative\’ as eloquently defined by Michael Oakeshott, not as cooked up in crazy-eyed think tanks: \”To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.\”

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.

de Pfwaffl

Boris Johnson was a sad sight on the Newsnight debate last night. Like a whipped cur, he shrank back, avoided saying anything, and cast around for fences to sit on.

Would he get rid of the western extension to the congestion charge? Well, yes. Or maybe no. \”I don\’t think it\’s working, but I\’m in favour of consultation. I will abide by what the people say.\” There are several problems here, apart from sheer issue-ducking. Consultation is not a decision-making deliberative process; it is a way of seeking public views on policies being proposed by politicians. It attracts only interested parties, and cannot confer a mandate. That\’s what elections are for.

It was interesting comparing this triangulated guff with the talk given by Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, about ten days ago. Asked why he had moved so quickly to pedestrianise Rua de Flores (the project was completed in three days), Lerner replied that, once a decision was taken, it should be implemented fast to avoid self-doubt and bureaucratic obstruction and, most importantly, to prevent the whole discussion from starting again. Mayors rule. Or at least, if they don\’t, they have no place being mayors.

But Alexander Boris de Pfwaffl Johnson was not finished. He had more issues to dodge, and those issues were going to be dodged. How much would scrapping bendy buses cost? Less than replacing them with hybrid buses. Was the Mayor paid enough, too much or too little. Hard to tell.

You could not imagine a greater gift for Livingstone and Paddick. Against this mop-topped embodiment of evasive action, they could hardly look anything less than decisive and statesmanlike.

Bedfellows make strange politics

Amidst the second wave of Gilligantics (I think one can describe the man in question as having waves), the mayoral candidates and their proxies are setting out their pitches and sharpening their knives.

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have, at one level, the same aim: they want the voters to take Boris Johnson seriously. Ken Livingstone has always emphasised the serious (and in his view seriously worrying) core behind Boris\’s bumblingly benign facade. Monday\’s poll showed that he needs to persuade wavering Labour party voters that a Johnson victory is a real possibility, and not a pretty one either.

So the two main candidates are locked in a p0-faced struggle for seriousness, a dullness decathlon (enough alliteration, ed.). Hence Livingstone\’s exclamations that \”this is not Big Brother\” and references to \’dog whistle\’ racism, hence Gordon Brown\’s craw-sticking emphasis on the serious nature of the Mayor\’s role, hence Jonathan Freedland\’s predictions of the decline of western civilisation in the case of a Johnson victory, hence Johnson\’s failure to say or do anything with a shred of wit or interest for several days.

Meanwhile, on the fringes, tactical alignments are being forged. Nick Cohen declares, with a hint of self-importance but also a grain of truth, that lefties should vote LibDem: if Brian Paddick comes third, his voters\’ second preferences may split equally between Johnson and Livingstone (or even favour Johnson as they did in Monday\’s poll), hence securing a Conservative victory. But if Livingstone comes third, his second preferences will almost all go to Paddick (errr, except those that Livingstone has already told to vote Green), hence securing a victory for Paddick.

The maths work, but the prospect of this level of switch away from Livingstone looks remote. That said, if the drip-drip-drip of insinuation and accusation continues, anything could happen.

Opening up

Following Jaspergate – or Jasper-ama to adopt Andrew Gilligan\’s more florid moniker – you can expect to hear a lot more about openness and accountability in the mayoral election campaign.

Boris Johnson and the Lib Dems had a first stab on successive days last week, variously pledging that they would make the City Hall register of interests public, would set up a code of conduct for mayoral advisers, would require them to attend question and answer sessions with the London Assembly, and would publish details of their responsibilities and contact details on the web.

Only some of this is new: elected officials already publish their register of interests (Livingstone\’s is here), and all staff (including mayoral advisers) are bound by a code of conduct and required to attend London Assembly hearings if summoned. Nevertheless, these proposals could make a difference to the openness of City Hall.

If they were implemented, that is. Readers with long memories may remember Ken Livingstone\’s Advisory Cabinet. This big-tent public committee was one of Livingstone\’s election pledges in 2000, and included Labour MPs Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Glenda Jackson (though not Frank Dobson), London Assembly members from all parties and assorted great and good from the worlds of race relations, disability and gay rights

The Advisory Cabinet met several times during Livingstone\’s first year in office (disconcertingly, this BBC Report of its first meeting includes a picture of an alarmingly chinless and younger me in the background). But after a while, initial enthusiasm faded, and with it the Advisory Cabinet: now a Google search brings up this ghost page.

The meetings had become, to use Bagehot\’s formulation, \’dignified\’ rather than \’efficient\’, with real decision-making and debate taking place behind closed doors. If Johnson or Paddick win, it will be interesting to see with how much gusto they follow through their current enthusiasm for flinging those doors open.

After the flood?

So, how much has Ken Livingstone been damaged by the relentless revelations that culminated this week in Lee Jasper\’s resignation?

The last poll published, by YouGov last month, showed Boris Johnson leading Ken Livingstone, by 44 points to 39 (a reversal of their positions a month previously), though the strongest gains were made by Brian Paddick, whose share of first preference votes increased from eight to 12 per cent.

In the wacky world of the mayoral election system, however, these first preferences are only part of the story. On this basis, the second preferences of those people voting for Paddick (and minority candidates) as their first choice, would be re-distributed among the front-runners. So the critical question is whether Paddick\’s votes are \’anyone but Ken\’ or \’anyone but Boris\’. That will make all the difference.

The fieldwork for the YouGov poll was conducted between 19 and 21 February, so the situation may well have worsened since then, as cringe-making personal emails became Lee Jasper\’s undoing. But, if the polls are only this bad, following weeks of destabilising and embarassing revelations, the Mayor might be forgiven for feeling a glimmer of optimism. Lee Jasper has resigned, the sheet has been wiped clean, a new beginning beckons…

And yet. It\’s always struck me as curious the fact that Andrew Gilligan\’s Lee-gate campaign began in December last year, fully six months before the mayoral election. Didn\’t such an early start run the risk that allegations would become old news in voters\’ minds by May? Shouldn\’t he have been keeping his powder dryer?

In today\’s Standard, in an article that gently chides Johnson for sloppy attention to detail on transport policy, Gilligan writes a sentence that might strike fear into hearts at City Hall: \”Luckily for Boris, all these questions have so far been largely drowned out by the ongoing Jasperama. I can promise more such entertainments in the future.\”

Gilligan is an odd and obsessive character, and this may be grandstanding. But, in the week when William Hill made Boris Johnson the favourite, I wouldn\’t want to bet on it.

The Corrections

The Guardian\’s Corrections and Clarifications column is always a good read, but it\’s unusual to have corrections correcting corrections. This correction, from today\’s paper, shows the fractures that beset the UK left:

\”A clarification of an opinion piece headlined The political choice facing London could not be clearer (page 35, January 24) said that although Nick Cohen believes Ken Livingstone is unfit to be the Labour candidate for London mayor he is not a supporter of Boris Johnson, contrary to an assertion we made. In fact the piece said he had \”more openly lined up behind Boris Johnson\”. While Nick Cohen has not endorsed Boris Johnson as a candidate he wrote in a Time Out piece in December last year, \”Go Lib Dem, Green or Tory [Johnson] if you must. But don\’t vote for [Livingstone]\” (Corrections and clarifications, page 36, January 26).\”

So is that clear? Nick Cohen attacked Ken Livingstone in the Observer. Seumas Milne attacked Cohen for that attack in the Guardian, alleging that he (Cohen) was supporting Conservative candidate Boris Johnson. Cohen demanded a correction, arguing that he had never argued for Johnson, but only against Livingstone. Milne went back to his sources, and has now demanded a correction to the previous correction.

This could run and run…

Paper tigers

It must be depressing being Victoria Borwick, Warwick Lightfoot, Andrew Boff or Lurline Champagne. Magnificent names aside, these putative Conservative candidates for the London mayoral election in 2008 are already eclipsed by Planet Boris. Former DJ Mike Read has thrown his questionable weight behind the bumptious blonde on the Guardian\’s Comment is Free website, prompting ribald comment and cruel queries about when fellow DJ Nicey will make his intentions clear.

What promises to be a lively contest will be made livelier still by the fact that London now has two evening papers, which are already making their picks.

The current Mayor\’s loathing for the Evening Standard (and London Lite, its free sister paper), published by Associated Newspapers, is fully reciprocated, so it was no surprise that the paper gave Boris Johnson the platform to launch his candidacy yesterday, and followed it up today with tenuous tales of a \’Boris bounce\’, based on Facebook entries and a pretty ambiguous poll.

The London Paper, the freebie anti-Standard spoiler launched by News International last year, has been less explicit about its preferences (and lacks the formal editorial column to make these clear). But today it gave Ken Livingstone a column to attack his opponent, and further space to a less than glowing portrait by Johnson\’s biographer, Andrew Gimson.

The brutal war being waged between Associated Newspapers and News International (and their proxies in London politics) has opened up a new front. This is about more than politics; this is about circulation.

Undignified, yes, but efficient?

Walter Bagehot’s masterwork, The English Constitution, famously distinguished the ‘dignified’ from the ‘efficient’ parts of government. The monarchy was part of the former, parliamentary democracy (still in robust health in the 1860s) was the latter.

The office of Mayor of London can be viewed in a similar way. The Mayor is the elected representative of the metropolis, with one of the largest personal mandates in Europe. Nationally, and internationally, he is seen as the capital’s voice, whether talking about his statutory responsibilities or offering views on world affairs.

But the Mayor also has specific duties, powers and functions. He is responsible for developing a curious ragbag of strategies, for allocating budgets, for overseeing the London’s transport, economic development, police and fire services, and for certain key planning decisions. The ‘dignified’ Mayor deals publicly in visions for London. The ‘efficient’ Mayor functions invisibly, working his limited powers and resources to deliver this vision, forever locked in titanic struggles with the apparatus of the state.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson. There is little doubt that he would be able to dominate the headlines like Ken Livingstone, and perhaps to cause offence to as many people. So that’s the ‘dignified’ (or perhaps ‘undignified’) role in the bag. But does he have the stomach for the detail, the serpentine cunning and tactical skill to wring money and powers from the state (the second most centralised after North Korea’s, according to current Mayor)?

Recent US history shows us that there is no barrier to buffoons forming governments, if they have the shadowy figures around them to undertake the nitty gritty of administration. And Boris Johnson is, of course, far less of a buffoon than he likes to appear.

Interestingly, he has also, in launching his campaign, gone straight for the policy jugular. A bit of robust abuse (“King Newt”), which will no doubt be repaid in kind, is combined with an attack on those fronts where Ken Livingstone is weakest: muggings, buses and the Underground. These may not be things that any Mayor can easily solve, but they are the irritants that scratch away at London’s world-beating veneer and at the daily lives of its citizens. Johnson has even managed to draw out the contrast between himself – the Old Etonian everyman on his bike – and Livingstone, who is as reluctant to ride a bicycle himself as he is keen to promote their use by others.

This promises to be a bloody, and entertaining, fight. Boris Johnson is right to describe the incumbent as \”\’one of the wiliest and most enduring politicians of the modern age.\” But If he can match his celebrity status with convincing Londoners that he means business, he could go the distance with the man who has come to personify London for the past seven years. London’s irreverent electoral mob might just swap one renegade for another.