On May 1st, Londoners go to the polls to elect a new Mayor. London’s only ever had one: Ken Livingstone. From the moment the Blair government announced its desire to shake up the city’s system of government in the late 1990s, and despite their subsequent efforts to block him from the job, he was the obvious candidate. An unabashed hard-leftist who made his name fighting Thatcherism in local government, “Red Ken” is, whatever else may be said about him – of which more in a moment – something of an original.
I’m no fan of Livingstone or his politics, to put it mildly, but any fair assessment of his record over two terms in the job must include a number of positives. He has fulfilled his brief in helping to build and maintain London’s status as unquestionably the world’s most vibrant and dynamic capital city. His flagship policy, the $15-a-day congestion charge for London’s notorious traffic, is certainly not without its detractors, but has inspired similar schemes worldwide. And he played a high-profile role in securing the 2012 Olympic Games for the city.
The very next day, when suicide bombers killed 52 on Livingstone’s London transport system, the mayor made a stirring speech in which he vowed to the extremists that "whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail." But just two weeks later, he was sympathizing with (though not endorsing) suicide bombings against Israelis, noting that "the Palestinians don't have jet planes, don't have tanks, they only have their bodies to use as weapons", and asking why home-grown jihadists who went to “defend [their] Palestinian brothers and sisters” were any worse than British Jews who enlisted in the Israeli army.
That wasn't the first or the last time Ken put his foot in his mouth or made a questionable judgment call. The most high-profile incident was a suspension from office (later successfully appealed) for comparing a Jewish reporter to “a concentration camp guard," but there have been many others. A long-time sympathizer with the aims and methods of the IRA, he has also used his office to promote links with, and visits by, Muslim clerics such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (who has ruled that unborn Israeli children are legitimate targets for ‘martyrdom operations’, as they will one day wear a uniform), and last year he signed a co-operation agreement with his buddy Hugo Chavez to provide “expertise” in town planning and public transport in return for discounted oil for London’s buses. Even among his natural allies on the left, there has been real disquiet about the way he operates, with widespread allegations of cronyism and corruption. The recent resignation of his race relations adviser has only added to the sense among many that his time as London Mayor should be brought to a close.
This year, for the first time, Ken faces a genuine challenge to retain his job. Up against him is one of the few politicians in the country who is also instantly recognizable by his first name alone: Boris Johnson, a Tory MP who fits the clichéd label “maverick” almost as well as the incumbent. A staple of TV quiz shows and the gossip columns of the press, Boris is an irresistibly buffoonish figure whose initial expression of interest in the job was treated as something of a joke. But the realization has grown that he is in with a real chance of winning; opinion polls have them neck and neck six weeks out from the poll. Opponents in politics and media cannot quite decide whether to deride him as a bumbling toff or warn darkly of a hidden right-wing agenda waiting to be unleashed on the unsuspecting citizens of the capital.
“Better the devil you know” seems to be the rallying cry for candidates on both sides of the Atlantic right now. No one would claim that the race for London Mayor is anything like as important as the American election, of course, but it’s getting just as dirty, and it’s going to be even harder to call.