Boris Johnson takes an early lead against the incumbent Ken Livingstone, and eight other candidates in the contest to become London’s mayor. It promises to be a campaign running on charisma and celebrity
The Charismatic Candidates
Think of a larger-than life political figure in the UK. Someone who has acquired a reputation of an outspoken and somewhat eccentric individualist. A person who can cause himself great political harm by intemperate remarks. Untrusted by leaders of his political party. A media celebrity with a reputation for acerbic humour. A bon viveur.
The description could come from press accounts of Boris Johnson, new darling of Conservative politics, and contender in the battle to become London’s mayor. They could equally well be applied to Ken Livingstone. That’s what makes the current leadership contest so fascinating.
Boris Launches his Campaign
At the launch of Boris Johnson’s campaign to become the next Mayor of London, we had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the endorsement made by David Cameron.
Boris Johnson would “do a brilliant job” as London mayor and is “exactly the kind of leader” the capital needs, Tory leader David Cameron says. He was “twice as charismatic, twice as energetic” as rival and current mayor Ken Livingstone.
At the launch, Boris was on his best behaviour. His foot was away from his mouth and from the humour pedal. He offered a concise statement of the policy on which he would run.
Mr Johnson, who polls suggest is in the lead for the 1 May election, said that tackling crime was his top priority. If elected he would set up a fund to encourage London’s “wealth creators” to support voluntary sector projects tackling the city’s social problems… [adding that] he believed it was possible to get more police on the streets and [that] creating a safer city was central to everything else that he wanted to achieve.
You can find a neat sketch of the launch in The Telegraph.
Mr Cameron [warned of] the “real risk” if people who want a change don’t come out to vote that Mr Livingstone will win another four years in power, after which the Tory leader arrived at the heart of his message: “Fortunately, there is an alternative to that dismal prospect. Boris Johnson.”
There was a time when such a statement might have produced titters even among the pro-Johnson audience assembled in the deliberately unglamorous setting of Bounces Road Community Hall, Edmonton, north London.
But now that Mr Johnson has shrugged off his undeserved reputation as a purely comic figure nobody dreamed of laughing.
The Rise and Rise of Citizen Ken
Boris has to overcome the formidable figure of Ken Livingstone. When he was first elected mayor in 2000, it was as an independent who had come to power as a rebellious outsider. Red Ken had become a symbol of the political leftie, kicked out of the Labour Party, and standing as very much his own man. His political power grew out of his leadership of the Greater London Council, during which time he had acquired an image of an outspoken individual and eccentric newt-loving revolutionary. An introverted personality, and a rather flat and quiet delivery did not prevent him appearing successfully on television shows as a witty entertainer, a useful asset towards celebrity status. The very unusualness of his life and escapades increasingly gave him the additional label of charismatic.
Churchill, Castro, Jose Mourinho, Mandela, have all had regular mentions in this and many other blogs. While it seems a bit of a stretch to add Ken and Boris to the list, they fit into the wider category. Livingstone, like his mayoral rival Johnson, has been the centre of self-generated controversies which have reinforced suspicions that politically he can be a liability.
Nevertheless, Ken’s success at the ballot box and continued popularity resulted in a pragmatic decision by Tony Blair’s labour government to reinstate him to the party and endorse his campaign for re-election. That was also to prove successful. Now Boris has received a similar kind of reinstatement in his endorsement from David Cameron.
An Earlier Analysis in The Guardian covered two of the three defining stories of the Livingstone’s time as mayor, his acknowledged part in bringing the Olympic Games to London, and his much admired public reaction to the terrorist bombs of 7/11 when London was still celebrating the winning of the Olympic bid. [Note to leadership students: the speech stands comparison to those classic political performances of Martin Luther King and Churchill. Yes, it’s that good.] The third defining story is that of his controversial transport policy, in which he has shown determination, commitment, and vision.
So Why isn’t Ken an Odds-on Bet?
That’s the next fascinating aspect of the race. Polls suggest that Boris quickly moved into a surprise lead.
Charisma can compensate for lack of experience. We are seeing it in the currently successful Presidential campaign by Barack Obama (and arguably by the John McCain, who is relatively inexperienced the highest levels of political office). David Cameron himself swept to power as Conservative leader in similar charismatic style, as did Tony Blair for the (New) Labour party.
But the charismatic success often emerges out of a distaste for and rejection of the status quo. Ken has to operate within the general climate of discontent with Gordon Brown’s Government. He may be a somewhat luke warm supporter, but he is officially the Government’s candidate.
The Challenges Ahead
The next mayor of London will have several mega-challenges threatening the well-being of one of the most vibrant and complex of the world’s great cities. He or she will have to make decisions that will influence the security, comfort, and well-being of upward of ten million residents, and countless others indirectly affected. The Olympic Games will compete with the logistic and financial complexities of moving people and goods around the metropolis. Wealth generation from its financial operations is expected to be more bumpy into the foreseeable future (which is not very foreseeable even into next year, as the campaign for mayor starts).
Ken’s Policy Manifesto states
London is leading the world with 21st Century solutions to the challenges that face all of the world’s great cities. My priorities for a new term will be clear – transport, crime, housing, the environment and good community relations.
Boris Leaps into Action
In search of more information about Boris and his policies, I went to his web-site
At the time of my visit, [April 1st 2008, but no joke] the day after his endorsement by Cameron, I found nothing on the site about the election, but a lot about local concerns such as the possible closures of post- offices. Surprising, and not consistent with the ringing endorsement from his leader about how his energy levels will be deployed in the forthcoming campaign.
Even more unexpected, I found the biographic details somewhat familiar. Boris, (yes it must be he, rather than an aide) had extracted the good bits from his Wikipedia entry. Like the journalist he is, he acknowledged his source as his Wikipedia entry, but suggested that further unmoderated comments can be found via the wikipedia site.
Yes, there are quite a few of those, and a few more substantiated ones which will no doubt come into play as the campaign unfolds. But the same can also be said about Ken’s Wikipedia bio. My point is whether Boris is confirming suspicions about his political frailties in dealing with controversial aspects of his past in such a fashion.
Will Boris become next Mayor?
If he does, the logic of the electorate will require the skills of an undercover economist to explain the manner in which fear, loathing, and hope were components within the process. The election is already promising to be one to explore the concept of voters searching for the leader they deserve
See blairwatch for an extended review of London Transport problems, and an examination of Boris’s proposals for dealing with them. Also the useful observation that the four key responsibilities of London’s Mayor are for transport, culture, emergency services and development.