London's mayoral race is full of (flawed) superheroes


Siobhan Benita, one of the contenders.


Oli Scarff

LONDON, UK — With arch nemeses duking it out against a dark cityscape, London's mayoral elections are best re-imagined as a long-running comic strip full of weary, flawed superheroes.

Financial austerity measures have rendered the UK capital into a passable imitation of Gotham. On May 3, voters will fire up the Bat Signal, summoning a politician to sweep in and clean up the streets, ease symptoms of the economic crisis and make the trains run on time.

In true comic-book style, the plot line is dominated by two rivals: self-proclaimed socialist Ken Livingstone, once dubbed King Newt because of his passion for amphibians; and Boris Johnson, a scruffy-haired right-winger often referred to simply as BoJo.

And yet, even as these heavyweights biff and bam their way to the top, there are signs that London's 5 million voters are becoming disillusioned with the destructive squabbling of their traditional champions, and are turning to another pulp fiction stalwart: The Outsider.

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It's easy to dismiss London's mayoral vote as an entertaining sideshow to elect a largely symbolic figurehead whose limited purview of policing, transport and housing — and lack of power to raise serious revenue through taxation — has little relevance in the wider political world.

But decisions made by the mayor-led Greater London Authority have repercussions not just for its 8 million people, but also for London's status as Europe's most economically powerful city and its under-threat role as the continent's main aviation hub.

For those unfamiliar with the back story, it's worth flicking back through old issues of the London comic book to 2000, when King Newt was crowned London's first elected mayor, a position he would hold until he was vanquished by BoJo eight years later.

Livingstone's victory, which came despite being disavowed by his own Labor party, was largely credited to the unlikely folk-hero status he gained as a vocal opponent of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, when he emerged as a local government leader.

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In office, his left-wing ideals proved no obstacle to business and he happily presided over London's pre-crash boom years. His watch also saw the city win its bid for the Olympics, endure terror attacks in 2005 and monetize its traffic problems with a pioneering congestion charge.

With a reedy south London accent and the outward appearance of an office drone, Livingstone made up charisma shortfalls with a political swagger and an arid, if misfiring, wit. But many found him overbearing and so, after serving two terms, he was vanquished in 2008 by Johnson.

Another maverick often at odds with his own Conservative party, Johnson shrewdly capitalized on a bumbling inability to control his personal life (he lost one job after lying about an extramarital affair) via barnstorming slots on TV comedy shows that appear to have endeared him to voters. 

Once dismissed as a novelty candidate, Johnson appears to have weathered tests such as last year's riots. He has sustained voter support while in power, even as opponents accuse him of achieving little other than taking credit for policies initiated under Livingstone.

And so, as we turn the page to this year’s vote, now just two weeks away, we find the Newt King and BoJo almost level in opinion polls and resorting to any means necessary to claw their way back into office — a situation observers say could scare away voters.

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One extraordinary exchange between the two men saw Johnson accuse Livingstone of being "a fucking liar" after a radio debate that focused on their respective tax arrangements.

It is against this backdrop that political outsider Siobhan Benita, a 40-year-old mother of two, has emerged as a surprise challenger, winning support and considerable media hype for an independent campaign that is seen as an antidote to the "Boris and Ken show."

Though few analysts believe she can trounce the heavyweights, particularly as she has been denied the television exposure enjoyed by others, bookmakers have shortened her odds from 100-1 to 20-1, making her third favorite ahead of four other party-backed candidates.

Benita, who quit her job in the UK’s Department of Health to run for mayor, says her surging popularity reflects growing voter resentment towards both Livingstone and Johnson.

"They spend far too much of their time fighting each other and fighting party political battles," she told GlobalPost. "We've heard very little policy, the campaign has been dominated by the debates between Ken and Boris."

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She added: "I think we are tapping into that general sense that people are fed up. They've had enough of the traditional candidates and they want someone else."

It’s a view partly borne out on the streets of the UK capital. “They’re as bad as each other,” said Akhdan Hussein, a 28-year-old commuter, emerging from Oxford Circus Underground station. “I honestly couldn’t tell you which one I’ll pick. Probably whoever is going to save me a few quid.”

Robert Whitehead, an economics expert with the Centre for London think tank, said financial considerations are a key factor in the election, with Livingstone pledging to save Londoners $1,600 each, mainly by cutting transport fares — a promise loudly derided by Johnson.

“It is interesting how economics are playing into the election, in that Ken Livingstone has decided to take a bread-and-butter economy-based strategy,” he told GlobalPost.

“He's trying to appeal to people's pockets, promising people they would be better off with him through fare cuts, reintroducing an education maintenance allowance and a couple of other initiatives.

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“Boris' campaign is very different. His strategy is essentially ‘not Ken again,’ and he's got a website with that name. He's running a very negative campaign and Ken is trying to respond to that.”

Whitehead snickered politely when asked about Benita’s chances, a reaction the former civil servant says is undeserved.

She said her years of experience in the corridors of power mean she understands voters and, unlike her rivals, can follow through on a broad spectrum of promises on education, housing and transport.

“I spent 15 years at the heart of government. I know how the government machinery works and I know how you get things done.”

As they say in Gotham: Kapow!