The London mayoral election in May 2012 will be the next electoral test of the Coalition government and its reactionary agenda. Defeat for the Tory incumbent, Boris Johnson, would seriously damage the government, call into question again its mandate for a severe down-scaling of the welfare state and deprive the Tories of an important political office which is being used to implement their agenda in the country’s capital city. All socialists and progressives should see defeating Boris Johnson in those terms.
Crucially the only person capable of defeating Johnson is Labour’s candidate, Ken Livingstone, who is clearly standing on his previous record of delivering improvements to London over 8 years and on defending London from the cuts. It is important to his success that he is founding his campaign on those points and not, as a rightwing Labour candidate would have done, on the terms of his opponent: law and order, and acceptance of the Tory economic assault.
Boris Johnson’s mayoralty has been characterised by inaction, incompetence and attacks on the living standards of the majority of Londoners. On every policy area, he has been out of step with the needs of London and therefore unable to deliver anything meaningful. Seemingly aware of this, he has done a formidably good job of playing to his strengths by elevating the trivial and inconsequential to the highest ranks of his agenda. Schemes for cable cars, planting trees and estuary airports have taken the place of the real business of City Hall. It is becoming easier to forget how much good the Mayor could do if he chose, so consumed is he with getting a good photo op and creating the illusion of activity.
Where the big decisions have had to be made, they have been made in the interests of the rich and already privileged. Eye-watering hikes in public transport fares have been accompanied by reducing the congestion zone to favour wealthy west Londoners. In housing, an area where the Mayor has some but not extravagant powers, Boris has failed to tackle overcrowding and support house-building activity that would incidentally have helped London through the recession. An early decision to slash Rise, Europe’s largest free anti-racist festival, pointed to the pitifully low priority he has attached to championing London’s diversity over the past three years. The previous Mayor’s women’s unit was quickly disbanded and funding promises for rape crisis centres broken. London has been firmly dislodged as the number one city in the world addressing climate change. On a whole host of other issues, Boris Johnson has implemented a reactionary, do-nothing agenda.
Already the campaign is in full swing. Boris Johnson’s team have set out from the start to assiduously disassociate him from the increasingly unpopular Tory-led government. They are right to attempt this strategy – Labour’s abysmal national showing in 2008 is what sunk Ken, and the same process could just as easily sink Boris. Like his predecessor, however, he is seen at present at something apart from the national government and is considerably more popular. And like his predecessor he has a personal charisma, even charm, of which Westminster is largely devoid. This all acts in his favour.
So it will not be an easy task to unseat Johnson, but the campaign so far from Labour is very impressive. As they have told their campaign’s volunteers this week, ‘Johnson has the incumbency factor – but Ken’s campaign has the enthusiasm factor’.I understand that new supporters are getting active in Ken’s campaign on an unprecedented scale. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Johnson’s campaign seem rattled by this energy and sense of purpose. Ken’s team point out:
On Tuesday 7th June Ed Miliband write to Labour party members inviting them to Ken’s weekly Labour phone-bank. We tweeted later that day about the overwhelming response. Two days later [Boris] campaign director Lynton Crosby emailed Tory supporters, writing his first blog in the campaign about Ken’s phone-bank and inviting Tory supporters to the first phone-bank of the year at a market research company.
On 14th May we organised our first major campaign day in Kingston on the NHS followed by drinks afterwards to watch the FA Cup. Just five days later the Tories announced a campaign day – even including the same line about watching the football afterwards.
“Ken is already organising his supporters – using them to help re-write his terrible record as Mayor,” writes Johnson’s campaign director in an email to their lists. “We can’t let them succeed.”
This copycat behaviour may seem a bit surreal but it shows Ken Livingstone is on the front foot. Nationally, the picture for the Tories is going to play out badly for Boris.
Lessons were learnt the hard way that we underestimate Boris Johnson and the people around him at our peril. Attacking Ken is going to be a major part of their strategy, but if the campaign to defeat Boris keeps the momentum up and continues to engage supporters in the remarkable level of activity seen so far, there is everything to play for, and a decisive victory against the right to be won.