Squabbling over a polluted fiefdom
All the candidates in today's mayoral elections view London as a smoggy city of disparate tribes. This is court politics, not democracy.
For all the personality-without-politics charade on offer in today’s London mayoral elections, the lightweight bun-fight between Ken’n’Boris, and the slate of one-man-band candidates far behind them, provides a rather bizarre, car-crash snapshot of UK politics. Much of what the candidates propose suggests that they don’t feel comfortable with a dynamic city like London, let alone do they have the vision to run the place.
In fact, the preoccupation with tribalism evident in many of the candidates’ programmes conjures up images of factions currying favour to the sovereign in a medieval king’s court. London has always played on its Ye Olde Worlde past for the benefit of tourists – but that’s no excuse for allowing such a sentiment to dominate the mayoral elections.
In the handbook for the mayor of London and London Assembly elections, most candidates cite some kind of embittered, cultural identity and belonging as the burning issue affecting London’s citizens. With yawning, tiresome predictability, the far-right British National Party (BNP) complains about immigration and feels that it is imperative for Londoners to ‘celebrate St George’s Day and other Christian festivals’. Apparently, the BNP is the party that puts ‘indigenous people’ first. For many of us, the BNP is a reprehensible organisation, but in talking up tribal culture this lump of deluded fantasists and social inadequates are in tune with the claims for cultural recognition that have long been the hallmarks of mainstream multiculturalism.
The similarly paranoid and cranky UK Independence Party also inevitably targets immigrants as a ‘problem’ and, likewise, has a vision akin to pulling up the drawbridge and cowering behind bolted castle doors. Elsewhere, the English Democrats take the parochial line: ‘you’re not from around these here parts’. For inspiration, it seems the English Democrats look further than to their own birth certificates. Their campaigning leaflets say ‘we are not left or right, just English’, which sounds forlorn rather than triumphant. For the English Democrats, London’s problems are all down to the Scots, who are ‘subsidised’ by ‘London money makers’ (clearly they’ve never heard of North Sea oil revenue). Apparently the present government is a shambles because it is run by a cabal of devious Scotsmen. Now Gordon Brown should be accountable for many things, but the misfortune of being born north of the border shouldn’t be one of them. Has politics been reduced to the politically illiterate terrain of a rather embarrassing England-v-Scotland pub argument?
Outside of regional identity and Little Englander backwardness, religious campaigners are also entering the electoral fray to complain that: ‘Hey we’re under-represented and ignored!’ Christian Choice campaigns to promote Christian family values and to ‘stop the mega-mosque at West Ham’, obviously envious that Christianity doesn’t quite have the same potency as Islam. In the 2004 mayoral election and the following year’s General Election, the championing of Muslim identity politics enabled the George Galloway/Socialist Workers Party (SWP) sideshow, RESPECT, to gain headlines and a few votes. Last year, Galloway and the SWP parted company; this uneasiest of alliances was bound to fail. While the SWP’s Lindsey German has gone back to the ‘welfare not warfare’ staple of radical left politics in her new vehicle, Left List, Galloway and RESPECT continue to be the voice of Muslim alienation and identity. And in this arena, they’re clearly not alone.
With so much emphasis on clannish claims for identity recognition, it’s hard to see how any of these groups seriously want to represent and work for London as a whole. Instead, London as an electoral arena becomes a blank canvas on to which to project all kinds of childish grievances and tantrums about being ‘ignored’. Ironically, it is this very sense of being ‘under-represented’ and even victimised that gives these no-mark groupings a reason to exist; they certainly have very little to do with offering an inspiring vision for London.
Indeed, a closer reading of the candidates’ manifestos suggests that they see London as one big problem. ‘Move out to the country’ seems to be the barely latent subtext of their electoral claims. Nearly all of the candidates emphasise that ‘crime is out of control’ in London and that more police on the beat, more police powers and more CCTV cameras are needed to ‘make our streets safer’. Even though violent crime has gone down in the past few years, the mayoral candidates insist on presenting the capital as an all-out war zone. It makes you wonder, then, who’d want to live here – certainly not any of the electoral candidates.
Elsewhere, many candidates see the capital as one big, menacing, carbon footprint that needs to be forcefully restrained. Everyone from the Green Party’s Sian Berry to the Left Lists’s Lindsey German and Conservative Boris Johnson offer measures to make London more ‘sustainable’ and thus that bit more miserable. Berry congratulates herself for persuading the Greater London Authority that big cars like 4x4s should pay more for the privilege of driving round London and demands a 20mph city-wide speed limit. Johnson wants to ‘protect our green, open spaces’ which is a euphemism for preventing new homes being built around the capital’s Green Belt. The Left Lists’s Lindsey German is campaigning against a third runway being built at Heathrow, thus aiming to restrict the mobility of Londoners. Although Boris and the Left List appear as political opposites, what they have in common is their use of green rhetoric to restrict the ambitions and aspirations of ordinary Londoners.
In many ways, all the candidates are following the lead given by Ken Livingstone since his first election victory in 2000. His congestion charge, introduced in 2002, made clear that London is ‘a problem’ and that rather than using imaginative policies to enhance road use, restricting mobility and freedom are the only solutions on offer. Livingstone has also gone further than anyone else in the UK in relying on the authority of green scaremongering to boost his own Town Hall authoritarianism. In a recent interview he fully advocated a ‘nanny state’ approach towards forcing individuals to comply with environmentalist diktat. A third electoral victory for Livingstone would undoubtedly mean further restrictions on individual autonomy and joy.
Whether it is appeals to tribal grievances in the king’s court, or a desire to restrict and dampen London’s inexorable urban growth, all of the London mayoral candidates are deeply uncomfortable and even hostile to the very capital they are seeking to represent. ‘Remember a green and pleasant land’, wails one mayoral candidate in his manifesto. Surely Londoners in the twenty-first century deserve more than the cries of village idiots from the fourteenth?
Neil Davenport is a politics lecturer based in London.
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