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Which way will London go? By Noah Sin

by on April 25, 2012

With just over a month to go before the London Mayoral Election, residents in different districts across London are bombarded with leaflets from different candidates; most of them by Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. Yet to most people, they perhaps represent the failure of politics rather than the ideal of democracy and the pride in localism. Can the election provide the new Mayor with a strong mandate, or will the democracy of London be further belittled by a miserable turnout rate?

First of all, let no one be mistaken. This is a two-horse race between Conservative and Labour. It is a rivalry affair between “Red Ken” and “Blue Boris”, following the then incumbent Mayor Ken Livingstone’s defeat four years ago. The Liberal Democrats also selected the same candidate as they did last time. With the party’s popularity at an all time low, he might face a worse result than in 2008. There are few other candidates, carrying the support of their local areas or small political fractions; neither will be enough to take them to City Hall. They are out of the race before it began.

What then, are the odds of an easy ride for Boris, and the chances for Ken’s comeback? It is more than difficult to tell right now. Boris is keen on presenting himself as the business friendly candidate to the City, and the mayor of the Olympics to the wider population, whereas Ken makes advance on Labour’s traditional grounds, such as reintroducing the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and cutting public transport fares for all. In addition, both candidates have made pledges to public that the other accuses as unpractical or insensible. With the allegations of Boris’ ”second job” at the Daily Telegraph and Ken’s “tax avoidance” question, this election is nothing less than the traditional two-party politics.

Therefore, the final outcome may well be decided in the final month of the race, by events. Boris Johnson was eight points ahead on Wednesday (21 March), not by accident. Neither did it happen by the “repeated claims from Team Boris that such fare cuts are unaffordable” as the right wing tabloid Daily Mail claims. It was Ken’s to lose and Ken lost it. Ken Livingstone’s recent gaffe on “Jews are rich” and would not vote for him. It was bad enough generalising an entire community with income scale, worse still is having that community within your Party denouncing you. Tom Freeland wrote in the Guardian, “When it comes to this one group of Londoners and their predicaments, their hopes and anxieties, he simply doesn’t care.” In spite of the backlash, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, continues to back his candidate, “He is someone who has fought prejudice his whole life and I am sure that is what he will continue to do.”

On a more positive note, the Labour candidate raised attention on his idea of an “independent republic”, dubbed by the London Evening Standard, where he would “devolve everything”. “I would actually declare independence and run the whole city. They can’t even run hospitals in London,” claimed the former Mayor. Mr. Livingstone made clear he wanted to see the New York-style independence for the capital, and would argue for more devolution up and down the country.

Boris is not without problems either. His campaign stalled on the first day when his office switched the name @MayorofLondon to @Boris Johnson on Twitter. Apart from that and the revealation of his ‘second job’ at the Daily Telegraph, the incumbent candidate is now hit by a wave of protests ignited by the Budget announced last Wednesday (21st March). The accusation of a ‘granny tax’ implemented by the Conservative-led coalition government turned the Tory candidate into a life shield for the chancellor. Campaigning in Bexley, Mr. Johnson’s agenda for London was overwhelmed by questions on the Budget, mostly by pensioners. “Unfortunately, unlike the Chancellor, I can’t set national budgets,” said Mr. Johnson. Instead, he hailed the cutting of the 50p top rate, something which he had been lobbying for. Even the right wing press express their worry over the recent developments. “These may all individually amount to minor infringements,” says Sonia Purnell from the Daily Mail, “but together they add up to what clearly amounts to, at best, a relaxed attitude to the rulebook under Johnson.”

Nevermind the bad news, the Tories can be relaxed for now, with polls giving their man a constant lead over their rival for more than a month. This certainly gathers momentum for the Mayor’s reelection and the Tories claim this is recognition of Boris’ time in office and a rejection of Ken’s record in City Hall. Boris told the Guardian he felt like someone “who has built half a bridge” and would like to complete the task. Well, so far, this plea seems to be going down well with the electorate. But the impact of the ‘granny tax’ and the cutting of the 50p tax rate is yet to be fully seen, Boris still needs to be careful.

The Green Party, the United Kingdom Indepence Party (UKIP) and the British National Party (BNP) have also put up candidates for the election. Jenny Jones, a Green AM (London Assembly member), who served as Deputy Mayor during 2003-2004, runs for the party for green politics on the left. Carlos Cortigila, who worked for the BBC World Service before, now the press officer for the BNP runs for the far right party, often accused of being racist and Facist. The UKIP selected their party chairman for London for the race. The most interesting of all is the Independent candidate from the borough of Kingston, Siobhan Benita. A senior single servant for almost sixteen years, she says in her campaign video, “for some reason we’ve fallen into the assumption that mayor of London has to be party political. Well, it doesn’t.” As the only independent candidate, it would be interseting to hear her arguments in the election campaign.

What now for London then? Ken or Boris? Left or Right? Or would Londoners switch to a third candidate. Firstly, there is yet to be any sign that a third candidate could break through, but chances are BNP and UKIP could split the Tory votes, and Green Labour’s on the first round; little impact would be made in final round under the Supplementary Vote (SV) system. Secondly, by studying recent opinion polls and news headlines, it seems to me that Boris has still got it. Not least because of Ken’s constant gaffes, but also due to Labour core support turning against him. As a YouGov Poll suggests, Ken Livingstone’s biggest problem is the substantial proportion of Labour Londoners reluctant to vote for him. “I don’t want to see Boris Johnson re-elected,” says Freeland, “but I can’t vote for Ken Livingstone.” I am skeptical on Labour’s campaign, or more accurately, Ken’s campaign. The two-time mayor could have secured another term had he ensure his core votes don’t switch; but by alienting Labour supporters, mission difficult became mission impossible. However, the race has just begun, no one can guarantee if the ‘granty tax’ would distant traditional Conservative supporters in the same way, or if there are more gaffes to come from Ken. Who knows? Just wait and see.

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