London calling — and we all ought to listen

The celebrity mayor show, featuring Ken, Boris and Brian talking about bendy-buses, provides a capital snapshot of where politics is heading.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

Heard the one about the Stalinist miserabilist, the public-school class clown and the gay ex-police chief? Sorry, you’re right, it’s no laughing matter. The May election to be the next mayor of London may understandably seem of little interest to anybody outside the city. Come to that, it is perfectly understandable that few Londoners have shown much interest in it to date. But the mayoral campaign is worthy of close attention if only because it provides a capital snapshot of where politics is heading in Britain.

spiked writers are sometimes accused of criticising everything by readers who ask ‘haven’t you got any good news for us?’ Well, London rather sums up the situation. The good news is that we live in a society that by any objective measurement is far ahead of anything that went before it. People who live in our prosperous, civilised, multi-ethnic capital city tend to be wealthier, healthier, more tolerant and better informed than ever. The bad news, however, is that we also live under a vapid political culture seriously lacking in the leadership and vision necessary to take society forward – a problem encapsulated in the thick smog overshadowing the London poll.

I have long been assured by my old friends on the Labour left that, contrary to my belief that traditional left v right politics are dead, the London mayoral contest would boil down to a straight fight between ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, the Labour mayor, and ‘True Blue’ Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP (with Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat candidate and former senior Metropolitan Police officer, holding their coats). So, what is the big issue of principle dividing these giants of Socialism and Toryism as they battle for the soul of one of the world’s great cities at the start of the twenty-first century? Er, the future of bendy buses. Which, perhaps appropriately for politics today, appear able to turn to the left and the right at the same time.

In fact, the London race has become something very different. It looks like a parade of the emerging trends in post-left/right political life – and it does not make a particularly appealing mayor’s show.

No-party politics

All three of the main candidates want to distance themselves from their party political labels. To judge by his campaign website and literature, Livingstone, supposedly the Labour candidate, is standing for re-election simply as ‘Ken’ under the slogan ‘Vote for London’. Johnson is likewise spraying London with policy leaflets that make no mention of his Conservative affiliation but instead urge us to ‘Back Boris – for a greater London’. Paddick’s motto is ‘Serious about London’.

All of them want to appear as the Mr London candidate, standing above narrow party politics. This is not only because all three are seen as mavericks in their own parties. Nor is it simply, as some claim, due to the mayoral voting system, which requires candidates to win second preference votes from Londoners supporting their rivals. It reflects a broader trend that we have noted before on spiked: the rise, not of three-party or multi-party politics, but of no-party politics.

The old politics of left and right have not been replaced by anything new of substance. Rather, politics is suspended in limbo, with no grand visions and few principles. Instead of standing for clear political ideas and appealing to partisan interests, politicians aspiring to be London mayor or indeed British prime minister today must stand on their personality, character and image. The result is a shallow and arbitrary contest where the question is not just ‘can we believe what they say?’, but ‘can they say what it is that they believe?’

Any-shade-so-long-as-it’s-green politics

As part of the trend noted above, all of the candidates seem to have eschewed their traditional party colours in favour of purples, pinks and greys. But the one colour they all embrace is green. Launching his eco-manifesto this week, Livingstone’s aides claimed it would be ‘the first election in British history to be decided largely on environmental issues’. The other candidates soon followed suit.

In the absence of any clear political principles of their own, they are all falling back on environmentalism as an ersatz manifesto and source of authority. There is much grand talk of saving the planet – with typical modesty Livingstone even claims that, were he to lose and Johnson to win, it would ‘undermine politicians across the world’ in their battle against climate change.

But in reality the ubiquitous green rhetoric is simply the new language of the politics of low expectations. It means reducing the election to a contest to see which sermoniser can most effectively force us apparently dirty, lazy Londoners to be meaner in our use of cars, energy, water, food and just about everything else. What sort of inspiring vision is that for the supposed ‘world city’ of the new millennium? And what sort of democracy is it where every candidate feels obliged to sing from the same recycled hymn sheet?

Identity politics

Each no-party candidate claims that he wants to build an alliance of different groups that can win under London’s proportional representation system. As with the American presidential election, the way the candidates are going about that today is not by campaigning around a political programme that can unite people from various sections of society in a common cause. Instead, they try to appeal to the narrow niche interests of different fixed ‘identity’ groups, and hope that they can add together enough of them to win.

That is partly why Livingstone, for example, has made such a concerted play for the Muslim vote in London by building links with controversial Islamic groups and figures. It also helps to explain why Johnson has been focusing his campaign in the outer London suburbs, seeking the middle-class commuter vote. And it explains why they are all seeking the support of the green consumer lobby.

Whether such identity groups truly exist as solid voting blocs is open to question. What seems more certain, however, is that this niche approach will create more divisions than unity, and further encourage the sordid system of what Americans call ‘pork barrel politics’ (no offence intended to Muslim or Jewish sensibilities) where self-styled community spokespersons vie for favours and patronage.

Court politics

This is supposed to be a high-profile contest between two of Britain’s best-known, and even most popular celebrity politicians, a rare splash of colour and excitement on our drab political map. It is striking, then, how little impact it has made so far on the lives of millions of Londoners.

Instead the battle has been fought largely inside the closed shop of the political-media class. Livingstone’s most fervent opponent, for example, has arguably been the London Evening Standard, which has run a long series of exposés alleging sleaze and mismanagement within the mayor’s administration. The big success here has been to force the resignation of Livingstone’s race adviser, Lee Jasper, over some schoolboy ‘flirtatious’ emails he sent to a woman receiving grants from the authority. Meanwhile, Johnson, too, has been dogged by critics in the media, notably over allegations that he might have pinched a cigar case belonging to one of Saddam Hussein’s right-hand men in Iraq.

Like British politics from Downing Street downwards, the whole thing has the feel more of medieval court politics than of a public fight between popular movements. Small cliques of insiders grouped around egotistical figureheads are manoeuvring for advantage in the media, stabbing one another in the back and poisoning their enemies’ wine (or whisky in Ken’s case). Meanwhile, life for the mass of us serfs and peasants outside goes on largely unmoved by these intra-elite plots and attempted coups.

Where does all of that leave the election for London mayor? Much as I would like to give a positive reason for endorsing a candidate, there is none. Any natural sympathy I might have for the left does not extend to mayor Livingstone, whom I have long dubbed ‘the Miserabilist of London’ for his policies on everything from banning ‘offensive’ language to not flushing toilets. The more scurrilous media attacks on him briefly had me considering a protest vote for Ken, but such thoughts were quashed when Gordon Brown – the senior miserabilist of Westminster – endorsed him as ‘an inspirational figure who has made a huge difference to the city’.

As for Boris, the problem is not just that he is a public-school Tory with a background of dubious views, or that he is the disorganised joke figure many claim. It is that in real terms he is now every bit as dull and uninspiring a politician of low expectations as Livingstone. Johnson seems to have distanced himself from and apologised for anything interesting he has ever said – such as his criticisms of St Jamie Oliver’s moralistic school dinner crusade – and endorsed the same narrow green agenda as everybody else. His idea of standout policies is to be against gun and knife crime (a controversial view, you’ll agree) and those bendy buses.

Paddick, the Lib Dem candidate, at least had the honesty to say at the start that he thought the contest would be more about the personalities of the candidates than their policies. It just seems a pity that he lacked the self-awareness to see how that insight might rule him out of serious contention.

The shallowness of the political contest makes things more arbitrary and unpredictable – especially in London, where the fast-changing demographics of the dynamic city make loyalties and affiliations even more unstable. It is a sign of how things can move that Boris, supposedly the cartoon candidate, is now odds-on favourite to defeat Ken, until recently hailed as the most popular elected leader in the country. Anything could happen in the next few weeks. The one thing that seems unlikely, however, is that any of these no-party, green, celebrity candidates and their courtiers will provide the sort of leadership to inspire Londoners. And wherever you live, a similar circus is coming soon to an election near you.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons predicted the congestion charge will become a successful export to the US. Earlier, he proposed a Routemaster for the twenty-first century. Frank Furedi decried how London and Britain become terrorist target through advertising vulnerability. Brendan O’Neill labelled Ken Livingstone London’s PC Despot. Josie Appleton slammed Red Ken’s green tyranny. Neil Davenport saw some sense in Boris Johnson’s criticism of the Macpherson Inquiry. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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