Mayoral Elections: personality over policy

By Babak Moussavi and Joseph Markus

Boris again?

Will Boris be Mayor of London for a second term, or is Ken poised to defy the polls and return to City Hall after a four-year gap? That is the big question at the moment, and one we should find out the answer to tonight. You won’t find any predictions here, except that the winner will be one of these two candidates.

Or Ken… again?

The more important question is what the mayoral election has revealed about British politics. Ken Livingstone, the Labour candidate, appears to be losing the argument on personality grounds, despite his strength on policy. His eight years in charge are seen as a success, with the congestion charge defying predictions of doom, and Oyster Card continuing to make all commuters’ lives much easier. Crossrail was approved, and the bicycle-hire scheme was conjured up. If he were given another term, he promises to cut travel fares by 7%.

Boris Johnson, the Conservative incumbent, has done a few noteworthy things during his first term. He finalised and oversaw the introduction of the bicycle hire scheme. He banned alcohol on the London Underground: a blunt and slightly populist policy that garnered widespread support, but did nothing to prevent already intoxicated people from using that mode of transport. He also put an end to the ‘bendy bus’, which again won him support, because they were deemed “unsafe”, but very little evidence was ever provided to support this hypothesis. Indeed, replacing the bendy bus with his signature Routemaster bus pleased conservatives, but eight of these models came at a whopping cost of £11.37 million. He wants to roll out 600 of them over the next four years.

There are policy differences between the candidates, and further policy issues that could decide this election. Mr Livingstone says he would fight for the poor, while taxing the rich, whereas Mr Johnson is said to have wished the recent budget had cut the top-rate of tax to 40%. Mr Livingstone says he will restore the Educational Maintenance Allowance in London, which was controversially scrapped across the country by the coalition government. Mr Johnson though, replies that he would create an average of 1,000 new apprenticeships per week.

No fan of Ken.

Despite all this, the difference seems to come down to Mr Johnson’s greater charm than his Labour counterpart (despite his frequent use of rather crude language). One thing that is often heard is a statement along the lines of: “I can’t vote for Ken, I don’t like him as a person”. This suggests the personality cult is the prevalent factor in decision-making. But similarly, people who think like this tend to privilege their own like or dislike of the person over the policies that that person says he will bring in. This form of thinking – some might call it false consciousness – has diverted attention away from the millions who want cheaper energy, rent, and fare prices and towards the individual sensibilities of the predominantly middle-class Labour supporter.

Fundamentally, the contest has only ever taken place between two poles: Labour and Conservative. This reality should be clear to all. Against that background, while there is scope for criticising the internal politics of the Labour Party that brought us Ken Again, that should not be made the central issue for usual Labour supporters. However distasteful Ken appears, remember that the alternative will be Boris. Personality politics forces us to forget that the reason why we vote is really to pick policy, not to pick out a leader in whom we vest our own, individual and unlimited mandate.

It is a pity that Brian Paddick (Lib Dem), Jenny Jones (Green Party) and Siobhan Benita (Independent) are not taken to be serious contenders, as their input could invigorate the debate, and raise it above the level of a personality contest (it is no pity that the UKIP and BNP candidates remain virtually anonymous, however). Furthermore, it would only be a good thing if the middle-class Labour voter caricatured above genuinely felt there were realistic progressive alternatives.

Ironically, it only seems to be in London, where the Mayor is directly elected, that the personality of the candidates is the deciding variable. Other local elections are taking place today too, and yet the voting will almost entirely be decided by party affiliation. In both cases, the link between the work conducted by the elected member, and his chances of re-election (or accountability) are highly tenuous. This cannot be good for democracy.

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