London election: we’re ‘aving a ‘mare!
Lacking passion and capital-P politics, the charmless race to be London mayor reveals much about the wider state of Britain.
London, we know, is like another country from the rest of the UK, and they do things slightly differently there.
That is why some of us like living in the capital, and why others hate the place. In a similar vein, there has been much talk about London’s mayoral election campaign being disconnected from the rest of British politics – with Boris Johnson polling better than the Tory Party nationally, and Ken Livingstone trailing behind Labour’s national rating.
Perhaps. But London is not really a political island. If anything, the political trends in this fast-moving, ever-changing capital city today hint at what might happen elsewhere tomorrow. With that in mind, and whatever the result, here are a few pointers from the mayoral election campaign to the state of wider British politics.
‘It’s not happening here’: the invisible election
My corner of north-east London has been festooned with stickers and posters about the London Olympics excitedly announcing ‘It’s happening here!’, despite the absence of real evidence that it is. The London mayoral election has had a similar effect, without even the stickers to show. Everybody has sort-of known that it is happening at some point, but there has been no excitement about or even evidence of it on the ground.
Welcome to the invisible election campaign, with no canvassing, few posters, fewer party activists and no political passion. The London election exists only within the media. Everything about it is what Daniel Boorstin called a ‘pseudo-event’, a staged affair that would not happen if the media was not there to cover it. Even the one moment of excitement in the campaign – Boris swearing at Ken in a lift – was an off-shoot of their joint appearance playing darts in a radio studio.
A campaign that has made no impact on Londoners’ lives has left the city in a state of heightened indifference – a mood apparently shared by many voters in other cities now being offered the chance to choose a mayor of their own. Don’t blame ‘apathetic’ electorates; look to the pathetic excuse for political campaigning that amounts to little more than watching the opinion polls and adjusting your PR accordingly. Claims that Johnson had effectively been gagged for the final days of ‘campaigning’, for fear that he might say something somebody might not like, speaks louder than anything about this anti-democratic election.
‘There’s nothing in it’: the empty election
The pundits have been telling us there is ‘nothing in it’. They mean the race between Johnson and Livingstone has been ‘too close to call’ (although that has sometimes sounded like wishful thinking from Labourites). But they could have said it in a literal sense. There really is nothing in this contest at all.
Welcome to the empty election, a phoney campaign featuring cartoon candidates apparently without parties, political principles or reliable bases of support, floating on a media cloud, buffeted by any slight breeze. This has made many supposed experts unsure of what will happen. Because London is a dynamic city in a permanent state of flux, politics in the capital is less predictable than elsewhere. But with the demise of safe seats and solid constituencies, the empty, arbitrary election is going national – indeed it has already been on tour to Bradford West.
Frozen stiffs: the zombie election
Thursday looks like the day of the living dead, with the same three main candidates dug up to stand as four years ago – and they looked moribund enough back then. No surprise perhaps that Mayor Johnson is standing again, given that there is no election for the Tory Party leadership just now. But the unearthing of the Labour relic Livingstone, and even the bloodless Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick, symbolises the lack of dynamism in British political life.
Nothing has moved in the past four years in British politics in terms of fresh ideas or new responses to the crisis. The fact that the biggest boast of both Tories and Labour is that they will freeze the London mayor’s share of council tax captures the frozen state of political life. No doubt it is true, as apologists point out, that the mayor lacks the financial clout to make big promises about spending. But as the figurehead of the megacity there is surely a lot any mayor could do to breathe life back into politics – let’s say, for example, by making London the capital of free speech in Europe. Instead they all seem content to look like political death warmed up.
This time it’s even more personal: the non-political election
Everybody agrees that the contest between Labour’s Livingstone and Tory Johnson will come down to personalities. That is a remarkable testimony to the end of the old politics in the UK. After all, Bullingdon Boris and Red Ken are supposed to represent the classical positions of right and left. Yet four years ago, the only issue of principle they seemed able to fight over was the ‘bendy bus’ – which, appropriately enough, seemed able to turn both left and right at the same time. This time around, the non-debate makes the bendy-bus debate look like an historic ideological schism.
The only real clash between the two in 2012 has been over their personal tax returns rather than political manifestos. That is hardly surprising given that few Londoners will have noticed any difference at all living under mayors Ken or Boris. The personal is political? More like if there is no political, bring on the personal.
The BBC has been running an advert in the run-up to polling day, encouraging the uninterested to vote on the basis that ‘everything is politics’. Oh yeah, like what? Well, the worthy ‘issues’ they mention include cycling, recycling and the fat content of your food. If these people seriously imagine that the election for mayor of one of the great cities on earth should be about how much grease you get by forking a sausage (image featured in the advert), all we can say is: on your bike. If ‘everything is politics’, then nothing is Politics with a capital P.
Labour delusions: the fantasy elections
On a political map where nothing seems the same as it was, one thing that does not change is the self-delusion of the rump of the Labour left. Some terminally deluded Labour supporters (at least those who still support Livingstone, unlike Lord Sugar and our local Labour councillors) have expressed their frustration that the personalised campaign – and their candidate’s newt-like personality – has supposedly prevented the party getting its winning politics across. There is much talk elsewhere around the local elections of the ‘resurgence’ of Ed Miliband’s Labour in British politics.
But here, it is London that shows the true picture. Labour is an empty shell and any gains it makes nationally will be down to the Tory/Lib Dem decay rather than any flowering of a red rose. What politics are these exactly, that are supposedly being overshadowed by the London personality contest? The only two positive reasons to vote Livingstone that Labour loyalists could offer me in a recent row were… the congestion charge and the swipe-and-go Oyster card for public transport. Such administrative measures apparently amount to ‘Socialism in one city’ in the dementia fantasies of Labour loyalists.
Whoever wins, we’re ’aving a ’mare
A political ‘nightmare’ normally conjures up images of an ideologically committed government of your enemies – hardly appropriate to the politically anodyne London election of 2012. But whoever wins (and some bookies have already paid out on Boris), it will be a ’mare in London and beyond for those who want to see political change rather than the dead atmosphere of stasis, stagnation, cultural-not-political division and overwhelming indifference.
So, what to do on election day? All I can say is that, as an old man of the left, I could never bring myself to advise a vote for Boris. But equally, as an old man of the left, I can definitely advise: don’t vote for Ken.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)