This week saw the first week of proper, intense campaigning in the London Mayoral election, with two high-profile hustings between the four main candidates taking place on local radio and national TV. At the start of the week the debate was firmly on issues, with arguments about police numbers and how to expand airport capacity in the capital. But as the week went on the debate shrank down to one issue - the tax arrangements of the candidates, amid accusations that Boris and Ken have avoided paying tax.
That issue appears to be settled - Boris doesn't appear to conduct tax avoidance but Ken seems to have paid lots of his salary into a company. But how have Londoners found the squabbling? We asked three people living and working in London for their thoughts - the answers aren't pretty....
Father Simon Morris, Priest of St. Mary The Virgin Parish Church, Tottenham, north-east London.
It’s almost a cliché to say that there is a lack of confidence in our nation’s politicians and leaders. The yapping and finger-pointing of the LBC debate between four of the candidates did nothing to assuage this view, especially when they discussed the gritty issue of whether individuals had established companies to affect the Income Tax they pay. Such debates inevitably get lost in the meaning of specific words: avoidance vs benefits. I fear this will not be solved by the candidates’ pledge to publish details of their tax affairs.
The playground fighting may be particularly owing to the presence of two giants in Ken and Boris. If this is so, Jenny Jones and Brian Paddock have an opportunity to appear unsoiled by the bickering.
Jenny, indeed, has shone through on the radio and TV debates (though less so here) so far, calling her fellow candidates back to “What’s best for London?” She has benefitted by focusing on the future, but she will struggle to overcome the easily lambasted policy of increasing the Congestion Charge.
Brian Paddick spoke of his passion for London on Newsnight, but it wasn’t really evident in what he said. But he was spot on about the London riots, realizing the crucial need both for reform on the Stop and Search powers and for the police to regain the trust of many communities. Ken Livingstone, however, seemed more concerned to criticise Boris for not rushing back from holiday on 6th August.
Boris Johnson has some good statistics concerning his time in office, for example the presence of more police officers. He is, however, clearly agitated by Ken, who in contrast had a very calm air about him, especially on Newsnight.
But, as the LBC presenter commented, “There’s [still] plenty of time for all spleen to be necessarily vented.”
Bansi Kara, Teacher from north London
I regard the mayoral election as being somewhat akin to choosing a new head teacher. In this sense I understand what I’m looking for in a future leader; I want to be led by someone with integrity and dignity, someone who follows through on promises, someone who listens and someone who is good with people. Someone, in short, I can be inspired by.
This is why I think the four candidates for this mayoral election fail on so many levels. Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone seem more interested in political point scoring, raking up dirt on each other about tax and sniping in lifts. Let’s cross off dignity and integrity. Jenny Jones and Brian Paddick are so untested and let’s face it, largely anonymous to large swathes of the population, that their ability to follow through on promises and lead the people can only be symbolised by a large, flashing question mark.
I do care whether the mayor has paid his or her tax by legal means. What worries me is that the only exposure some of my students and their parents – voters - will have to this mayoral election is two middle aged men swearing at each other and arguing about tax. I think, like me, they want to be led by someone sharp, bright and representative. The tax evasion issue is old politics propagated by old politicians. As post-riot Londoners, we’ve never needed fresh blood as much as we do now.
Dominic Williams, small business owner, central London
The Mayoral election kicked into life with a blazing row over the personal tax affairs of Ken and Boris - but in reality it highlights a national issue, not just a problem for London. Many people in local government and the BBC seem to have used the same kind of arrangement, channelling earnings through a company (so do I, but I run a consulting business. It just shows how weak HMRC have been at enforcing the notorious IR35, how far people are prepared bend the rules and how much the whole regime needs reform.
I suppose it is inevitable that if we have American-style mayors, we get American-style campaigning like this, with negative attacks on the candidates’ personal lives. The tax row probably won’t put most voters off because it is good soap opera. Ken compared it to X-Factor. Boris would probably say “panem et circenses” - bread and circuses. Londoners anyway seem to have lower moral expectations for their mayor than they would for the Prime Minister – for instance stories of philandering (which surely would have sunk David Cameron or Ed Miliband) do not seem to have damaged candidates’ chances.
However, it shows up some of the similarities and differences between Ken and Boris. They are both members of the professional political elite, who use their high profile to earn far more money than most Londoners can dream of- but maybe most people would say good luck to them. What struck me is that Ken apparently used a company to channel his earnings – conventional behaviour for public-sector high earners - but Boris still sees himself as a self-employed person. Whatever the tax consequences, it’s the self-image of an individualist.