The catfight over the capital

Observers got excited about ‘Red Ken’ vs ‘Blue Boris’, but the electorate could see that both were grey.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

A case of the day after the lord mayor’s show? For Londoners waking up on Saturday morning, there was little chance of that. The days before the big event – the London mayoral elections – were so thoroughly underwhelming that probably only the losing Labour candidate, Ken Livingstone, awoke with a vague feeling of depression. In fact, given that about two thirds of those eligible to vote decided not to bother, it looks like the vast majority of Londoners couldn’t and didn’t give a toss one way or the other.

Not that you would think this given the coverage of what amounted to an unpopularity contest between Livingstone and his blonde nemesis Boris Johnson, who did eventually win the right to open the 2012 Olympics later this summer. For politicians and commentators, the London mayoral election was very exciting. They viewed it as a bone-crunching political contest between two titans from either side of the political divide, the one a right-wing, toff-and-proud Tory, the other a left-wing, multicultural champion.

Just as the contest itself seemed to be viewed through a miasma of political fantasy, so the result, too, seemed to represent something of old-fashioned political significance.

For in the Livingstone camp, Red Ken’s loss was put down to that old, redoubtable foe, the media. Like those much-mocked Labour leaders of yesteryear, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, Livingstone was effectively cast as the left-wing victim of a right-wing press. In his valedictory speech on Friday, Livingstone himself played up to this narrative. He talked darkly of a ‘vicious and unpleasant’ campaign and slammed an ‘incredibly slanted’ media.

Supportive commentators were quick to agree, calling Livingstone’s loss ‘a victory for a right-wing machine’, its ‘appetite whetted and ready to shred the next target’. In this view, Livingstone’s radicalism, his refusal to ‘stick to the bland script of the modern politician’, had sealed his fate. While a bland Labour Party, led by the excruciatingly modern Ed Miliband, were basking in the glory of a set of favourable local election results, Livingstone’s exceptional, left-wing politics, from a penchant for multicultural music festivals to, er, the congestion charge, had apparently proved too much of a threat to the right-wing establishment. Or something.

If clouds of commentariat fantasy hung over Livingstone’s defeat, things were little better when it came to understanding Johnson’s victory. For Boris’s supporters, his victory signified a potential future for the Conservative Party, a revival of proper, bona fide, blue-rinsed, one-nation Toryism. His victory speech certainly gave this impression, with Johnson declaring himself ‘absolutely avowedly conservative, with a big C or a small c’. In this view, Johnson’s success, at the very moment his modernising bosses in parliament, David Cameron and George Osborne, were supposedly being routed in the local elections, showed that a seemingly unabashed Tory could appeal to the public in a way that a couple of ‘arrogant posh boys’ banging on about gay marriage and House of Lords reform couldn’t.

So Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome argued in The Times that Boris ‘is the one senior Conservative who simultaneously appeals to core Tory voters and to a large proportion of Labour supporters’. Cameron needs to get back to basics, said Montgomerie, or ‘the party might very reluctantly reach for the blond-coloured nuclear button’.

What both sides of this rather insular conversation do seem to agree on is that the London mayoral contest was an election apart. While the rest of the country was passing judgement on the bland, charisma-less politics of Cameron and Miliband, Londoners were choosing between two charisma-heavy politicians with larger-than-life politics, the one drawing upon decades of left-wingness, the other milking centuries of Toryism. All of which is a bit misleading.

For a start, so animated were Londoners by this political mega event that even fewer (38 per cent) turned out to vote than in 2008 (43 per cent) when Big Bo first faced King Ken. Step away from the media hype, and this public indifference is hardly surprising. The personalities may, relatively speaking, be big, but the political differences were incredibly small. As one New Statesman columnist rightly pointed out: ‘[Since 2008], far from being a radical Conservative reformer, Boris has almost entirely accepted the settlement left for him by Ken Livingstone at City Hall.’ So for all Johnson’s supposed cost-cutting right-wing credentials, Transport for London has maintained its bureaucracy, environmentalism is still a key ideology in modern London, and the multicultural festivals play on.

In fact, not only has Johnson proved himself to be utterly in line with his predecessor; his politics, like Livingstone’s, have also been utterly in step with the political class as a whole. That is, illiberal and petty. In Boris’s view, our behaviour, from our energy consumption to our boozing, is a problem to be managed. Hence his first, tenure-defining act upon becoming mayor four years ago was… a ban on drinking on public transport. He then proved just how willing he was to challenge the environmentalist consensus – which he’d been doing in print for years – by publishing the London Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, a report so full of Biblical imagery and moral coercion that even Greenpeace would think twice about releasing it.

So, faced once more by a choice between Blue Boris and Red Ken, is it any wonder that the vast majority of Londoners were turned off? We saw only shades of mainstream political grey.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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