Duel of personalities in London race

Sat, Apr 28, 2012, 01:00

As the race to be mayor of London enters its final straight, it’s now a battle between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. It’s far from the last challenge that the winner will face, writes MARK HENNESSY, London Editor

LORRAINE DINNEGAN stood before an auditorium packed with members of London Citizens, a grassroots community organisation, in Methodist Central Hall in Westminster on Wednesday night. Unused to public speaking, the Glasgow-born mother nevertheless silenced the room in seconds as she spoke about the murder of her son Martin in Holloway, north London, in 2007. He was stabbed after he was chased by youths, dying metres from a police station.

“On that day my life changed,” said Dinnegan, a member of Finsbury Park church who got involved with London Citizens in street-level efforts to help a new generation of youths avoid ending up as victims or in jail. “I think of him every day and of how things might have been different.”

A few metres away, listening to her, sat three men and one woman who would like to influence the lives of millions of Londoners over the next four years. Each of them – Boris Johnson of the Conservatives, Ken Livingstone of Labour, Brian Paddick of the Liberal Democrats and Jenny Jones of the Greens – looked tired, if not exhausted.

And well they might. Livingstone, Paddick and Jones are the leading challengers to Johnson, who has held the post since 2008, as Londoners prepare to vote in the city’s mayoral election, next Thursday. The London mayoralty is England’s highest- profile political position outside that of senior ministerial jobs.

Dominated by Johnson and Livingstone, the race, when it has not been about their personalities, has centred on complaints about London’s rapidly rising housing costs, and shortages, along with crime, transport and the economy.

Johnson desperately wants to stay on in city hall, particularly with the Olympics looming in late July. In a traditionally left-leaning city, particularly one coping with the impact of austerity, Johnson should have been dead in the water before he started.

But he is a politician with a better image than the party he represents – though that was truer a month ago than it is now, if polls are to be believed. Since Christmas, polls have shown the race tightening; they now give Johnson a small lead over Livingstone, who was twice mayor, between 2000 and 2008, and is determined to regain his crown. But that determination has proven to be a handicap, with many voters believing that Livingstone feels he has a right to the post.

Over lunch last week in the House of Commons, the 66-year-old was unrepentant. “I wouldn’t be running if the current mayor was doing the job, but he isn’t. Look, I could be making a lot of money advising cities around the world. I have other things that I could be doing, but I passionately believe in London.”

During the lunch, Livingstone despaired of press coverage of the campaign, blaming journalists for the focus on the Boris v Ken personality battle. “We launched our housing manifesto in Kilburn last week. There wasn’t a single one of you there, and then you complain that there aren’t any policies,” he said.

The issue is key, as thousands on housing benefit are being threatened with moves to Stoke or other provincial cities by two London councils. The “to hell or Stoke” strategy by the Labour-controlled Newham council has been dismissed by Johnson as a party stunt on the eve of the election.

That argument hardly covers Conservative-ruled Westminster, however. Instead, London is facing a crisis that threatens the city’s future.

Livingstone’s campaign has been plagued by criticism of his financial dealings. For years, he lambasted the City of London, condemning its bankers for living high off the hog. But then it emerged that he had set up a company to receive earnings from a memoir, speaking engagements and consultancy. The firm, Silveta, was established in 2008, before he was ousted from city hall in that year’s election. Since then, £320,000 has been paid in.

Nothing about it was illegal, but the fact that he would pay corporation rather than income tax left him open to a charge of hypocrisy.

Half-hearted attempts at disclosure, with no publication of full accounts, for example, have repaired little of the damage – a fact seized on daily by his Conservative rival.

Pressed by the Green Jenny Jones, Johnson agreed – following an expletive-filled tirade against Livingstone in a lift – to publish his tax affairs. The figures showed that he earned comfortably more than £300,000 last year, much of it from a lucrative weekly column in the Daily Telegraph.

The outcome of the race will have implications not just for Johnson and Livingstone but also for their respective party leaders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Cameron’s relationship with Johnson is difficult, particularly as Johnson – a member with Cameron during their Oxford University days of the Bullingdon Club, a student dining society populated by rich young men – has ambitions for higher political office.

In other times, a part of Cameron might quietly indulge in a little schadenfreude to see the tousled-haired Johnson brought down a peg or two, but these are not other times. Cameron’s administration has endured its worst month in office. Last month’s budget, crafted by the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, produced one nightmare after the other.

Equally, the Conservatives’ lead in the opinion polls has eroded on the question of whether they or Labour are best equipped to deal with the economy, particularly after the news that the UK is back in recession – the first double dip since the 1970s.

Cameron also needs Johnson to win to provide cover next Friday, as his party is unlikely to get much good news from the elections to 180 councils outside of London.

Miliband has much riding on the mayoral race, too. His own leadership, with days of occasional sunshine, has been lacklustre; he badly needs a high-profile win.

In 2000, Livingstone surrendered the Labour whip to run; he won as an independent candidate. Four years later, back in the party fold, he won again, but only because his personal rating was higher than Labour’s in London.

This time around it has been different, with Livingstone’s personal rating lagging, forcing him to wrap himself in the party flag in the campaign’s closing weeks.

Predictions about the race are complicated by the fact that the five million eligible voters will have to use the supplementary-vote system, whereby all bar two candidates are eliminated after the first round, assuming that no one has polled more than 50 per cent.

On first glance, the availability of a second-preference vote should benefit candidates from smaller parties and those running independently, but so far it has had the opposite effect.

In London local-council elections in 2006 and 2010, for example, which used the first-past-the-post voting rule, the Liberal Democrats received 20 and 22 per cent respectively. But in 2008 Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat standard-bearer, received just 10 per cent in the mayoral race; the London-wide assembly election, which used PR, brought equally bad news, with just an 11 per cent share.

This time around, Paddick, a former Metropolitan Police commander, has focused heavily on policing, which is now under the control of city hall rather than of the home office.

Curiously, the haemorrhage in the Liberal Democrats’ support, caused by its difficulties in government, has benefited Johnson more than it has benefited Livingstone.

The victor next Thursday will enjoy some early perks in office: the queen’s diamond jubilee and the Olympics, assuming that both pass pleasantly.

Once the ribbons come down, however, whoever is mayor will face serious problems running a city and addressing the concerns of citizens such as Lorraine Dinnegan at a time when money will be hard to find.

Boris v Ken: What the candidates offer

The two main candidates, the Conservatives’ Boris Johnson and Labour’s Ken Livingstone, have clashed fiercely during an often bitter campaign.

Johnson’s campaign pledges

Cut council tax by 10 per cent over four years, though councils are struggling to cope with reductions made by Whitehall.

Major investment in infrastructure, with Johnson the one to force money from George Osborne, the chancellor.

More police on the street, though total police numbers fell during his four years.

Livingstone’s election promises

Cut public-transport fares, though opponents say he would have to cut investment or city hall’s share of council tax.

Three hundred thousand affordable homes over 10 years, with an offer to pension funds to become developers.

Cheaper electricity, using London Transport as a vehicle to bulk-buy power.

Tougher rules to curb exploitative landlords

Cheaper childcare for poorer families, along with restoring a grant to keep 16- to 18-year-olds at school.