Ten reasons to vote Ken

3:55 pm - April 29th 2008

by Dave Hill    

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During the weeks of the election campaign that’s eaten my life, I’ve striven to be fair to Boris Johnson. There was, though, never much chance I’d vote for him. That said, I’ve also been testing my loyalty to Ken Livingstone. I believe his various critics, including those with roots on the left, have over-spun or overstated their cases against him, but that isn’t to say they lack all force. There’s also the question of how much difference a change of mayor would really make.

On the day campaigning officially began, I argued that the job description and moderate content of Johnson’s stated polices meant that many of the differences were less of Big Ideas than emphasis. This wasn’t what Team Ken wanted to hear, as it made clear in a letter the Guardian published the following day: its job from the off has been to sharpen the contrast in substance – of both policy and pedigree – between the two men; Johnson’s, in keeping with David Cameron’s approach, has been to position himself just enough to the blue side of the incumbent to mobilise Tory support without confirming suspicions that he’s daft and extreme.

But though the choice between the two was not as stark as their media images suggested, there was no doubt they were there. The thing was to clarify and quantify them. I’ve done my best and now feel I can vote for Livingstone with conviction.

Here are 10 reasons why.

One: Livingstone Has Better Policies

Brian Paddick has made the best arguments about policing, but that’s not the comparison that counts. And while Johnson has made the most noise about crime and antisocial behaviour and Livingstone has sometimes looked complacent about it, The Blond isn’t offering more than the Labour man. He’s spoken of “zero tolerance” but its virtues are contested, and his support for ending police accountability with regard to stop-and-search and references to “political correctness” are worrying.

On housing, there is evidence that Livingstone’s determination to force London’s boroughs into line – Tory ones especially – over increasing the numbers of affordable homes can be counter-productive. By contrast, Johnson says that by “working with” the boroughs he can achieve the same total. But if Tory boroughs declined to build their share, would mayor Johnson use his powers to persuade them? He hasn’t said. And while it might be alarmist to claim that his policies would result in the further concentration of the poorest Londoners in the poorest parts of town, such a trend can’t be ruled out. What’s more, to take advantage of his First Steps home ownership scheme would need an income of £60,000 a year. Four-fifths of London households need not apply.

Johnson’s policies on the environment are tailored to parochial, suburban interests. There’s nothing wrong with that if those interests are virtuous, but a world city like London should be leading the fight against climate change. Livingstone’s larger schemes have been damned as costly gestures for limited returns, but Johnson’s plans don’t promise greater ones. And on transport, where the mayor’s powers are greatest, it’s been no contest: Livingstone has beaten Johnson hands down.

In conclusion, Livingstone is decisively better than Johnson in some key policy areas and where isn’t, he is safer. And if you think my general conclusion betrays a blind pro-Ken bias, check the Ken-hating Evening Standard’s assessments. Even it doesn’t favour Boris over Ken on the whole.

Two: Livingstone Has Made The Best Joke

It happened last Friday morning. A caller to Vanessa Feltz’s Radio London show asked the three main candidates which Shakespeare character they most resembled. Livingstone, self-mocking, chose Julius Caesar. Johnson said Pericles. Much has been made of Johnson’s admiration for the great Athenian leader of that name. Embarrassingly for the classicist, Shakespeare wrote about a different Pericles. Livingstone, often derided as an un-British philistine, spotted this. Johnson, graciously, acknowledged his mistake. Talk then turned to the Sun’s endorsement of the Tory candidate. Johnson expressed his gratitude for this. “Oh Boris,” quipped Ken, “that was before they heard your mistake about Pericles.”

Three: Brian Paddick & His Partner

The Liberal Democrat, as we all know, is gay. His partner has sometimes accompanied him on the campaign, though being careful to avoid photographers. A charming man, he linked up with Paddick on the day I joined him on the trail for votes. Some images stay with you: the pair of them shuffling onto a tube carriage together at Southwark station and later walking, heads together, through the streets of Marylebone at dusk. Gay men feel less fear on the streets of London than they did 25 years ago. As leader of the GLC, Livingstone fought for gay and other minority rights in the teeth of often vicious opposition. Such things shouldn’t be forgotten.

Four: Livingstone Is A Better Politician

Politics is about winning arguments. Livingstone has yet to lose one with an electorate and has won big ones against Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. London needs a good arguer. Could Mayor Johnson outmanoeuvre such enemies as? Could he arrive as well at settlements with others who are not natural allies? He has his charms, but I have my doubts.

Five: London Needs To Be Bossed From The Centre

People say Livingstone’s a megalomaniac whose regime is too centralised and lacks accountability. The Lee Jasper affair is cited as proof. But though Jasper’s behaviour reflects badly – just how badly, we’ve yet to learn – on Livingstone’s administration if take a step back you find an institutional problem. It’s not the only one with the GLA arrangement and agencies under mayoral influence. Would a Mayor Johnson correct this? His accountability manifesto makes promises and contains some good ideas, but there’s nothing very definite in there. He also talks about devolving power to the boroughs, but would that improve the capital’s governance? Tristam Hunt says history suggests otherwise. A renewed Livingstone mayoralty on its best behaviour is a safer bet than a Johnson one whose key personnel he hasn’t revealed.

Six: Livingstone Is A Better Leader

Think about it.

Seven: The Evening Standard Will Be Gutted If Livingstone Wins

Not every aspect of the Standard’s mayoral coverage has been shamelessly, sometimes hilariously, anti-Ken, but the highest profile stuff has. How much difference has this made? Judging that is as difficult as predicting the result, but Londoners have deserved better from the capital’s sole paid-for title. There’s a media studies course in the worst of it: selective reporting, misleading headlines, photographs chosen to send damning signals, the works. Johnson has criticised Livingstone’s free paper The Londoner as Pyongyang style propaganda. But at times, the Standard has resembled Pravda.

Eight: The Tories Don’t Really Deserve To Win

Boris Johnson has gone up in my estimation during the campaign (and no doubt he is weak with gratitude). He’s worked hard to master his brief, engaged with people and problems he’s never bothered with before and been obliged to recognise that opinions that amuse the readerships of the Telegraph and Spectator can cause deep hurt and damage elsewhere. He’s an intelligent and approachable man. But we all know he wouldn’t be in the race at all were he not famous from the telly. Livingstone, of course, is a celebrity too, but his fame is rooted in what he has achieved in politics. By comparison, Johnson is famous for being well known. Whatever his virtues, a victory for Johnson will be a victory for the politics of personality. He has no record in the politics of London. By contrast…

Nine: Livingstone Knows More Of London And Londoners

Experience matters. So does empathy. While it is true that a fresh face can bring fresh energy and ideas, I’ve been moved by some of Livingstone’s engagements with people on the streets, especially in the inner boroughs: there’s a depth of connection there and a store of knowledge – about neighbourhoods, about people, about the nuts-and-bolts of local government – that it’s hard to imagine Johnson ever matching. You feel you could put Livingstone in most London living rooms and he’d be able to hold a proper conversation. With Johnson, for all his affability, that’s much more difficult.

Ten: We Can’t Be Sure What A Mayor Johnson Would Do

I sympathise to some extent with Team Boris’s close policing of their boy. Hacks love a gaffe and Boris says things that hacks think qualify when quite often they don’t. Also, I haven’t been convinced by claims that behind the clown’s mask, a Bullingdon Beast or swivel-eyed Thatcherite waits to emerge – for one thing, I don’t think Dave would be too pleased. Yet Thatcher’s winning 1979 campaign contained little hint of the reckless arrogance that followed. And the problem with Johnson is that it’s hard to know exactly how he would behave if installed in City Hall. A model of visionary delegation or of muddle and drift, with a team of aides whose identities he feels unable to reveal going about their business much as they pleased?

At best, a Johnson mayoralty could be energetic, innovative and exemplify in different ways the urban liberalism that Livingstone has fostered and that Cameroonian Conservatism has sought to accommodate. At worst, it could be sloppy, stingy, neglectful of London’s ground-in inequality and indulgent of the worst suburban suspicions and snobberies. Many Londoners have yet to decide which way they will vote. With Livingstone, they know what they’ll be getting and they’ve been grateful for most of it before. Johnson is a risk I’d prefer they didn’t take.

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About the author
Dave Hill is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a novelist, blogger, journalist, married resident of Hackney in east London and father of six children. His novels are about family life. Also at: Comment is free.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Debates ,Labour party ,Mayor election ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Thank goodness, only two days to go and the madness can end…or begin, or continue, depending on your viewpoint!

Some of them are fair points, but the last two are a little off. How can a challenger ever be favoured over an incumbent if those are points against them?

Question One: “Livingstone’s larger schemes have been damned as costly gestures for limited returns, but Johnson’s plans don’t promise greater ones.”

I’d rather have modest schemes for limited returns than costly gestures for limited returns!

Two and Seven: you want to keep Livingstone as Mayor of an important city as London (GDP larger than countries) because he made a better joke than Johnson once and that it will annoy a newspaper with a circulation of less than 300,000?

Four: well, you don’t know, do you?

Five: “London Needs To Be Bossed From The Centre” – that’s what a good lefty would say, isn’t it? More centralisation! It is a shame that people can’t see room for a plurality of systems.

Six: Wow, so Livingstone made a good speech after an atrocity. Great. So did Bush. Livingstone also proudly admits to the Olympics bid being a con trick. Great. Vote Kon. I mean, Ken.

Seven: “Johnson has criticised Livingstone’s free paper The Londoner as Pyongyang style propaganda. But at times, the Standard has resembled Pravda.”

The Londoner is run with the aid of millions of pounds from the taxpayers of London, while the Evening Standard is run with private money (and has a much lower circulation). It is a shame you can’t see the difference.

Eight, Nine and Ten: Favouring the incumbent. Great. Did you favour the Conservatives in 1997? Why bother with the election at all? Mayor for life!

Hi Dave. I thought I’d jot down my own reasons to not vote Ken:


Questionthat @ 2:

Wrt number nine, you can have relevant experience without having done the job. Ken has been doing it for eight years, while Boris managed twenty or thirty people.

As to number ten, it was mayor Johnson, not any other mayor. He does not have a track record in government, municipal or national.

There are also, from time to time, incumbent-free elections.

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