The two leading candidates in the May 3 London mayoral election don’t bother with surnames. Boris Johnson, the Conservative incumbent, and Ken Livingstone, his Labour predecessor and challenger, are famous enough to get away with the rock-star affectation whereby first names suffice.
The resemblance doesn’t end there. Both display scant allegiance to their parties, with multiple television panel show appearances and a record of winning votes from beyond their camps. Each has a way with words and an eye for self publicity that dismays party leaders.
The Ken versus Boris battle, which has flung accusations of lying and hypocrisy in both directions, has starved other, more conventional candidates of publicity. It suggests showmanship is a more important skill for a London mayoral candidate than understanding the mechanics of garbage disposal. That partly reflects the nature of the job; while the mayor sets the strategic direction for police, transportation and economic development, he has little day-to-day power over any of them.
“Almost because they don’t have very much power, it’s more important that they can command large amounts of publicity,” said Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson. “Boris and Ken aren’t absolutely symmetrical. Ken has really detailed knowledge of how local government works; Boris has a quality that’s very unusual in a politician, that he can cheer people up.”
The most recent poll for London’s Evening Standard newspaper, published today, put Johnson ahead by 52 percent to 48 percent in the decisive second round of counting, when the second-preference votes from the five minor candidates will be totted up. YouGov Plc questioned 1,231 London adults from April 27 to yesterday for the poll, for which no margin of error was given.
That’s a wider lead than the two-point margin Johnson enjoyed in the last YouGov survey a week ago, though not as big as the eight-point advantage for the mayor in a ComRes Ltd. poll conducted April 23 to 25.
Politically, the contest has significance beyond London, with Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband counting on a win for their party’s candidate to help boost their fortunes nationally.
London’s mayor has the largest personal constituency of any British politician, with 5.8 million voters. Only the French president has a bigger electorate in western Europe. That gives mayoral candidates a platform to speak on any issue they choose.
Even within the election, Livingstone is campaigning on issues well beyond the remit of the mayor, attacking measures such as the cut in the top income-tax rate in the Conservative-led government’s March 21 budget, and pledging to restore payments to poorer students that have been cut nationally.
“I see this election as a forerunner of the general election to come” in 2015, Livingstone told journalists at an April 17 lunch. “It’s about a fairer Britain.”
In a political career spanning four decades, Livingstone, 66, has stirred more trouble for his own party than for the Conservatives. As leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, newspapers nicknamed him “Red Ken” for his support for causes such as Irish nationalism and nuclear disarmament.
His policies brought him into conflict with Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who scrapped the council and dispersed its powers to local boroughs, leaving the capital without an elected city-wide authority.
Elected to Parliament in 1987, Livingstone was such a problem for Labour’s leadership that when Prime Minister Tony Blair created the post of London mayor in 2000, he blocked Livingstone from being the party’s candidate. Livingstone ran as an independent and won, leaving the official Labour candidate trailing in third place. He was allowed back into the party in 2004, in order to run for Labour and win a second term.
Livingstone continued to court controversy as mayor. In 2006, he was suspended from office on full pay for four weeks for comparing a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration-camp guard.
Johnson, 47, the man who beat Livingstone in 2008, has fought his share of battles with party leaders. Originally a journalist, he gained notoriety for scrapes including being fired as a trainee from the Times newspaper for making up a quote from his own godfather.
This didn’t stop him rising to edit the Spectator magazine, and in 2001 he was elected to Parliament. His first stint as a party spokesman there lasted seven months until he was fired for lying to the then Conservative leader, Michael Howard, about an extra-marital affair exposed by the News of the World newspaper.
Since becoming mayor, Johnson has regularly criticized the policies of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, arguing for lower taxes for the rich and an end to “banker-bashing.” He attacked plans to reduce social-housing subsidies, saying they’d push poorer people out of central London and lead to “Kosovo-style social cleansing.”
In every general election since 1997, Labour has led among London voters, faring better there than in the country as a whole. Miliband’s opposition party currently leads the Conservatives nationally in the polls by about 10 percentage points.
“If Boris loses, it won’t be as bad for Cameron as it will be for Miliband if Ken loses,” said Tony Travers, director of LSE London, a research center at the London School of Economics. With the exception of 1981, London local elections have been a bellwether for the following national general election, Travers said.
A key element of Livingstone’s campaign has been an attack on Johnson for alleged tax avoidance by being paid through a company, drawing a response from the mayor during a live radio debate that it was an “absolute lie.” Livingstone has also used a company to reduce his income-tax liability.
A Johnson win may boost calls for him to be his party’s next leader whenever Cameron departs. With Livingstone already old enough to draw his state pension, this election may mark the end of an era in the capital’s politics.
“I have a theory this will be the last big personality contest for London mayor,” said Justin Fisher, professor of politics at London’s Brunel University. “If Johnson wins, in 2016, Livingstone won’t be a candidate, and Johnson will feel like he’s got bigger fish to fry. Both main parties have become frustrated that the candidate is bigger than the party.”