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Boris Johnson's Re-Election is No Surprise, But it is a Disappointment for Ordinary Londoners

Posted: 11/05/2012 10:29

Nicola Bartlett, an English student at Homerton College, Cambridge, writes:

Boris Johnson's election victory last week stands in stark contrast to the devastating losses for the Conservatives across the country, but it is unsurprising that London bucked the national trend. The London Mayor is unique as the only democratically elected individual in British politics. In a city of over 300 languages, home to both the nation's financial sector and some of its most deprived citizens, leadership requires the ability to appeal to the city's many different faces. The two contenders this time are both figures unafraid to defy their parties, and have become public personalities beyond the world of politics. Yet it is difficult to be excited by a rematch. London surely deserved better than to watch this saga play out for a second time.

Results filtering through on Friday indicated that Labour had run a more effective campaign, successfully getting out their core vote despite a generally low turnout. The Conservative campaign seems to have been less energised, and patchy in its success. This is borne out by the results for the London Assembly, where Labour gained four seats and the Conservatives lost two - making Labour the largest party. It seems that throughout the campaign, the Tories believed that Boris had already won. As well they might have, with Boris's personal ratings consistently high. Early on in the campaign, the Labour Party realised the major obstacle: much of the electorate do not associate Boris with the Conservatives. Even in the Feltham and Heston by-election in December, in which Labour won over 50% of the vote, voters were not overwhelmingly backing Ken Livingstone.

While Boris's lack of association with the Conservative Party has been to his advantage, Ken's maverick status may have worked against him. When your party is in government and suffering from traditional mid-term blues, it works to be a maverick. It counts for less when they are in opposition and gaining in the polls. Last Thursday Labour gained 823 councillors and have polled around 40% for the past few weeks, while the Conservatives have seen their lowest ratings since the Coalition was formed. The fact that the mayoral election was so close in the end seems to be the result of poor organisation on the Conservatives' part. The mayoralty was never Ken's to win, but Boris could clearly have won by a greater margin.

In the current climate it is hard to avoid the suspicion that a different Labour candidate might have achieved a different result. Labour's candidate was chosen by its members, and Oona King lost out to Ken in the ballot. Ms King is of course not without her own set of political baggage - she lost her parliamentary seat to Galloway in 2005 over Iraq - but she is very different to Ken. Politically she is closer to the centre, which may have been more palatable to a broader range of people. She also differs from both Boris and Ken in gender, age, ethnicity and manner. One should be careful generalising, but this certainly wouldn't have done her any harm in appealing to parts of London which often feel alienated or disengaged from the political process.

'Red Ken' is clearly a tougher sell. He has almost always been on or to the left of the Labour Party. Londoners have long memories, and anyone who has been involved in the city's politics as long as he has inevitably upsets and loses people along the way. Ken's 'Fare's Fair' in the 1980s meant that commuters from the suburbs paid more to subsidize lower fares for those living in the city, which infuriated many. He has sparked costly controversy in his support for the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and for dialogue with the IRA before such compromise became mainstream. His outspoken comments have made his a regular face in the pages of the hostile Evening Standard, not least after comments comparing a Jewish reporter to a German concentration camp guard.

As Mayor, his record showed that he has matured into a highly adept and innovative politician, introducing the Oyster card, the congestion charge against huge opposition and making bus and cycle lanes a priority. Although he does less these days to encourage his 'Red Ken' image, he remains for many synonymous with a former self who delighted in upsetting the Tories, and will perhaps forever remain dogged by his reputation as a left-wing maverick.

Unlike Boris, however, for many Ken is synonymous with London. As the first elected London Mayor, he defined the role and championed the city. All who saw his response to 7/7 could see the deep hurt at his city being attacked. As Boris acknowledge of his defeated rival in 2008, on 7 July 2005 Ken "spoke for London".

Ken's manifesto this time round contained practical solutions to real problems experienced by everyday Londoners. It included a 7% reduction in fares, reintroducing EMA for London, reversing cuts to the police, cutting energy costs and offering grants for childcare. Boris's ideas were less inspiring: they included freezing council tax, reinstating some of the police he'd cut and every politician's favourite, cutting waste at City Hall. London deserves better. When asked what Boris has done, most of my friends refer to the flashy 'Boris Bikes' around the city. Leaving aside the fact they originated with Ken, they point the biggest problem with Johnson as Mayor. An Evening Standard investigation revealed what any commuter could tell you: far from enabling free and healthy transport for ordinary Londoners struggling to afford the tube, their primary users are white, middle-aged, professional men - a demographic remarkably similar to Boris himself.

Since Thursday, gaffe-prone Boris has already proved his worthiness of the epithet in seeking to appoint Stephen Greenhalgh, leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, to the post of Deputy Mayor of Policing. This double-appointment breaches local government law, and is far from the first time he has made serious misjudgements in appointments over the past four years. It is hard to escape the feeling that for Boris, running London is just another hobby, alongside appearances on Have I Got News For You and regular newspaper columns.

His new routemaster buses highlight a shameless penchant for the eye-catching over the life-changing. They are precious little to rejoice about when it still costs Londoners on the minimum wage over an hour's salary to get to and from work on public transport. We can only hope that the slim margin of Thursday's result will force Boris to sit up and pay more attention to those he is elected to serve.

 

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