The Mad Race for London Mayor

by Ahila Sornarajah

Stuck in a traffic jam in hot, dusty and dynamic Chennai (formerly Madras) recently, I started thinking about the far away elections for the Mayor of London and what this will mean for Londoners. While America is obsessed with the groundbreaking race for the democratic nomination between Clinton and Obama, we’re proud to be having our very own tightly fought contest in London this year.

Screenhunter_02_apr_28_1217Labour’s Ken Livingstone and the Tories’ Boris Johnson are neck and neck with the finishing line in sight at the end of this week. Compared to national politics – the general disappointment of Gordon Brown’s first months in power and the seemingly inexorable rise of the baby faced David Cameron – the Mayoral race is truly nail-biting stuff. Livingstone and Johnson are the only men in the country with sufficient personality to be instantly recognizable by their first names. In the left corner, is “Red Ken” the maverick leftwing politician with working class roots whose love of London politics is only matched by his love of newts. And in the right, posh toff “Boris” or to be exact, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, one of Cameron’s buddies from Eton who is often labeled a gaffe-prone buffoon but has an 18th century satirist’s wit when it comes to words and has been as much of a regular on the current affairs comedy circuit, as he has been in the shadow cabinet.

Mayoral elections in Chennai just can’t be as exciting. In Chennai, while the Chennai Municipal Corporation headed by the Chennai Mayor is ostensibly responsible for public transport, the Mayor’s tenure only lasts a year, and being vested with very little real power, the role is largely that of a figurehead. Perhaps the fact that there is no one to champion Chennai shows in its roads. Chennai roads are catastrophic and everyone drives as if they are wielding a wheeled weapon in the greatest game of bumper cars there ever was. Traffic signals are few and far between, and the number of lanes dependant on the different permutations of traffic in front of you: a bus, and an old Morris Oxford make a two lane road, the auto rickshaw, three scooters, and a bicycle in front of them will conspire to add a few more lanes to the fun. What’s more, having to contend with people driving against the traffic is commonplace. I read in the Hindu a few days ago that more than 1600 people died on Chennai Roads last year. 60% of these were pedestrians. This might not be surprising given that pavements in the city sprout from the ground, transform into rubble and then disappear fairly frequently. The total also compares rather unfavourably with the 316 people who died in road accidents London last year – a city five times the size of Chennai.

Clearly to compare London with Chennai is rather simplistic given the comparative lack of financial resource in the latter and historical developments in infrastructure in the former. However, it is difficult to see the new shining IT companies off Chennai’s main roads, the new shopping plazas, and food courts, without contrasting these with the rubble and chaos that lie on their doorsteps. People in Chennai, always on the go, always off somewhere to do something, must find the impediment of their choked and chaotic roads infuriating. Could a strong city government make a difference?

While road traffic in London has never compared, London in the nineties was a very different place from now. There was very little care taken about the look of London under the depressed aegis of John Major. London’s neglect was clear from the pollution, grime and graffiti evident on the streets. I still remember the long awaited, but still half built Canary Wharf tower along the London skyline in utter defeat after it was almost bombed by the IRA in 1992.

Until 2000, all London’s policies were fragmented across several local boroughs controlled by either Labour or Tory politicians. The results of this are evident today. You can travel a few stops along a London tube line and life expectancy rates will decrease from north to south, from west to east. Every trip across London is accompanied by the constant hum of the postcode lottery.

The creation of the post of Mayor with its larger strategic role in cross cutting issues such as transport, policing and the environment enshrined in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 has, most agree, truly made a difference. It has meant that someone really cares about London, overseeing the way its riverside skyline looks, the cleaning up of the city as well as, most importantly, the control of road congestion at its centre and the reduction of vehicle emissions. It also means that someone is directly accountable to the city’s voting public, rather than the central government of the day. Given the recent successes of the mayoral post, the London Authority Act 2007 will extend the mayoral role to include powers to direct housing policy in the capital as well as extend its environmental remit. It is hoped that some control over the capital’s health policies will follow.

Red Ken has, in the round, been a good Mayor. His greatest achievement is likely to have been the introduction of the congestion charge; the city now charges vehicles for entering the city centre at particular times of day, thus booting more people out of cars and onto buses, tubes and trains. He has also introduced a more efficient ticketing system for public transport, free transport for pensioners, and secured cash from central government for a new cross-city rail service. He has helped London win the Olympics for 2012 on the basis that it will help regenerate the more impoverished areas of East London. Importantly, Red Ken who, in his former incarnation as member of the General London Council in the eighties despised the capitalist pigs of the city of London, has realized that they are not such bad chaps after all, and cleverly used his power of veto on planning permissions for major London construction projects to get private business to contribute to building adjunct affordable housing for the poor. Even where Ken has proved slightly megalomaniacal, self-importantly concluding a deal with his friend, Hugo Chavez, to supply London transport with cheap Venezuelan oil, people were rather willing to forgive him. They like that he, like London, is a little more than eccentric.

Boris Johnson despite his playing the lovable buffoon in years past has actually floated a number of good ideas in his campaign, some of which Ken unashamedly announced he would be happy to implement if he were elected given that there is no intellectual property in public policy. He has some good ideas about getting kids off the streets in the wake of gang related stabbings that killed 27 kids last year, and has suggested new cost cutting measures to get more policemen on the beat. His housing policy is almost lyrical; in a veiled reference to the ugly public housing blocks that stud London’s landscape with dark stairwells and identikit flats, Boris says that “we must build houses that will still be loved and respected in a hundred years, dwellings of distinction and grace that satisfy the instinct for differentiation that is deep in the human soul”.

Despite the promise of the role, and even the candidates (I have ignored the candidacies of a number of others including that of the man currently polling third in the race, the impressive Liberal Democrat candidate, Nick Paddick) the mayoral race has now descended into the usual mudslinging. Ken has been accused of cronyism as one of his top mayoral aides has been accused of using city funds inappropriately. Boris, perhaps more worryingly, is constantly reminded of politically incorrect articles he wrote in the Spectator while editor of that publication. He once accused the Queen of only loving the Commonwealth because it supplied her “with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving picanninies”. While this could well be an accurate representation of how the Queen views her third word subjects, it wasn’t exactly choice language. On Africa he once wrote “the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore… the best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers or their citizens scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty”. The unearthing of these quotes does not bode well for Boris in a liberal London stacked to the rafters with ex-colonials. His defence has been equally quaint. He has suggested that he couldn’t possibly be considered racist because his great grandmother was a Circassian slave (a genealogical defence that sounds as if it has been cribbed straight out of a Captain Flashman novel).

Notwithstanding its entertainment value, from the perspective of a Chennai traffic jam, the way in which the London mayoral race has descended into sheer spectacle seems like a colossal waste. Unlike in Chennai the role of Mayor in London has tangible power. While Chennai may lack a strong personality to champion it, it seems a real shame that Boris and Ken are letting allowing their personalities to get in the way of a truly effective public office.