Letter from London: A tale of two egos


Mayoral candidates Ken Livingstone (left) and Boris Johnson.


Daniel Berehulak

LONDON — Voting is a private matter. How a journalist votes even more so, since we are supposed to be impartial and if the readers knew our political preferences they might find a bias in how we report the facts.

The former editor of The Washington Post, Len Downie, famously claimed that he didn't vote because he feared that the very act of choosing would compromise his impartiality.

Well, on the occasion of the London mayoral election, I am writing about the thinking that is going into my decision — not who I am going to vote for, I don't want you to detect any bias in my reporting — just puzzling through who will get my vote.

Politics is always about ego but the the London mayoral contest is a particularly pure example of this. It emphasizes ego more than other elective offices because the reality is the job doesn't come with many responsibilities. The Mayor of London doesn't have executive authority like New York's Mayor Mike Bloomberg who oversees a budget of $61 billion and has tax raising power to finance it. London's Mayor oversees a budget of £1.6 billion ($2.6 billion) and can't raise a shilling in tax.

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How is this possible, you ask? The answer: The city is divided into 32 boroughs, each with its own paid executive staff and civil servants and elected council. The councils raise the taxes and so hold the real political power.

The Mayor's primary executive authority is over the city's vast transport network and the police force. But the Greater London Authority's website struggles to make even those responsibilities seem genuinely important. It says, "The Mayor’s job ranges from developing policies to setting budgets and championing London around the world — all in line with his vision and in the interests of making London the best city in the world." 

In other words, the Mayor's purpose is to be the face of London. It's an egotist's dream job and the two main contenders fit the bill: the incumbent, Conservative Boris Johnson, and the challenger and former Mayor, Labour's Ken Livingstone have egos that can barely be contained inside the 607 square miles that make up this great metropolis.

They offer genuine choice to voters based on class, age, and looks. Since the job doesn't offer scope to act on ideology their politics don't really matter much, although even here, voters have two distinct brands to choose from.

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Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (his real name), 47, is the son of an extremely wealthy entrepreneur. He was educated at Eton and Oxford where he was a few years ahead of Prime Minister David Cameron. He is a hard right-winger but above the nastiness associated with that kind of conservatism, as most old Etonians are. In addition to Latin and Greek and other traditional subjects, Eton inculcates a sense of effortless charm which is a useful tool for those born to rule over lesser mortals. He lives on the north bank of the Thames, which is the socially correct side of the river.

Livingstone, 66, is a working-class lad born south of the river. He didn't go to a posh school, he didn't even go to college. He is about as up from the bootstraps as you can get, so far up from the bootstraps that now, he too, lives north of the river.

The pair have been part of London's furniture for decades. They don't ride in limousines and aren't surrounded by flunkies. Boris and I have had a number of excellent conversations about public transport over the years. This doesn't mean I know the guy. I don't. It's just that's who Boris is. He has never hidden away. Anyone, drunk or sober, can go up to him and say, "See here, my good man, " and he will have Boris's full attention.

About 15 years ago, I was stuck in one of those London traffic jams that sprout up for no reason — this one was so bad that people on bikes couldn't get anywhere either. I looked out my window and who was stuck on a bike next to me but Boris. This was when he was editor of the Spectator magazine and already a city-wide celebrity. Anyway, I rolled down down my window and struck up a conversation. We analyzed the immediate problem ahead and what needed to be done in future to make sure it didn't happen again — bus and bike lanes, I think was the solution.

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By the time Boris became mayor in 2008 there was no need to put our plan into effect because Ken, who was the first person to hold the position of Mayor, actually put bus and bike lanes in place when he came into office in 2001.

Ken, is a different sort of person than Boris, more pricklish. He started his family very late in life and I see him from time to time at the Hampstead Heath playground. No matter the weather he wears a coat with his collar turned up so you can only see his face from the nose up. I guess it's a way of warning people to stay away while he is having private time with his kid. Fair enough. But Boris would never do that.

So their egos are evenly matched. Both love London the way Londoners love London.

Boris is more charming and colorful. But Ken, has a pretty wicked political sense of humor. During the '80s he ran the Greater London Council, a previous incarnation of city-wide government. His offices were on the other side of Westminster Bridge from Parliament. Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her power and Ken erected a sign on top of GLC headquarters with London's unemployment rate on it. Mrs. T was not amused. She put a bill through Parliament disbanding the GLC.

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But Ken has a blind spot. He is genuinely of the left, unlike most senior Labour Party politicians, and he buys into a lot of hard-left rhetoric about things that have nothing to do with London, like the conflict in Israel/Palestine. Down the years he has made more than a few comments that could be construed as anti-Semitic. His statements go beyond offensive. It has turned a lot of potential voters off. A few weeks ago, The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland wrote, "I should be an automatic vote for Livingstone. But I'm not … I can no longer do what I and others did in 2008, putting to one side the statements, insults and gestures that had offended me, my fellow Jews and – one hopes – every Londoner who abhors prejudice."

Freedland ends by announcing he will not be voting for Ken.

I won't end with a similar declaration, because Boris has a blind spot too. It is for the City of London, the financial district, (it too has its own mayor, police force, by-laws). The City is still the epicenter of all that is wrong with global finance and it has an outsized effect on London's economy, City bonuses shape the city's housing boom which is leading to life-long residents being forced to move out. 

Many inner London boroughs have unemployment rates way above the national average because the City generates wealth for its players but no jobs for ordinary Londoners. Boris in his first term of office has not spoken up for those who are having a very hard time making ends meet. He has gone out of his way to talk up the financial services industry without ever mentioning its responsibility to give back to the city in which it is based.

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There is no doubt that Ken would do more for those who are on an economic knife edge than Boris. That's important to me. But his toughness is manifested in a nasty streak a mile wide and he uses it to play identity politics — against people with my identity.

On the other hand, Boris is charming, and you can always give him an earful and get a quip back in return. But if I want a laugh I can go to a comedy club.

Egos pure and simple. Modern politics distilled to its essence. The problem is which one to choose, when neither really makes this voter enthusiastic.