There are very few political personalities, on either side of the Atlantic, big enough to be instantly recognizable by first name alone. The two frontrunners in the race to be the next Mayor of London are in that select group. Ask any Brit from Bloomsbury to Belfast about “Ken” or “Boris” and you will get an immediate response. Boris Johnson, journalist and Tory MP, is a staple of the chat shows whose Bertie Wooster-ish persona earns him affection and derision in roughly equal quantities from people who couldn’t name a single other politician; Ken Livingstone, socialist firebrand and erstwhile anti-Thatcher campaigner, is a cult figure on the Left who even did guest vocals on Blur’s seminal 1995 album The Great Escape.
The job of Mayor of London was invented at the turn of the century by a Labour government flushed from its successes in setting up devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales (and then handpicking Labour stalwarts to head them). They looked at the success of the powerful chief executives of American cities and rightly wondered if a similar strategy might reap dividends for London. When they attempted to rig the selection process to install their favored candidate and keep Ken out, he ran as an independent and won anyway. That was in the year 2000, and it’s fair to say that the intervening eight years have not been dull. If his remit was to “sell” the city as a destination for the world’s tourists and businesspeople, Livingstone should not be denied his share of the credit. London in 2008 is thriving, and is unarguably the world’s most vibrant and exciting capital city. His flagship congestion charge for city’s notorious traffic, which currently stands at around $15 per day, has rightly not been without its detractors, but is now being adopted by cities around the planet. And – the undoubted jewel in the mayor’s crown – the Olympics will be held in the east end of the city four years from now. Blair, to his credit, knew when he was beaten; by the rematch in 2004, the Mayor had been readmitted to the Labour family, and re-election was a formality.
So why is it that the polls show Ken trailing his supposedly buffoonish Tory rival by up to 12 points? To all but his most loyal partisans, Boris Johnson is certainly not what you might call a heavyweight. (It’s impossible to explain Boris to a foreign audience; perhaps you would be best to watch a typically light-hearted BBC chat show appearance to get the measure of the man.) Ken’s struggles are a combination of widespread ennui with the government nationally and an inability to pin his mercurial opponent down. Is Johnson really a “dangerous right-wing reactionary”, as the more voluble critics claim, or merely an affable clown? No-one can decide, and the tousle-haired challenger has flourished in the gap.
The deeper truth, though, is that Livingstone has demonstrated, time and again, his manifest unfitness to be the major of London. He has frequently treated his critics with contempt, infamously comparing a Jewish reporter from an unsympathetic newspaper to a concentration camp guard, and mocking two Jewish businessmen with whom he had been in dispute by telling them to “go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs” (they were in fact Iraqi Jews). There have also been widespread accusations of cronyism and loose accounting in his wide and eclectic circle of favoured lobby groups and advisers. Nor is he averse to a bit of populist grandstanding when it suits him, making great play of his 2007 deal with Hugo Chavez to provide cheap oil for London’s buses in exchange for the provision to the Venezuelans of unspecified expertise in municipal affairs, the details of which remain opaque at best.
More seriously, Livingstone has long been – to put it diplomatically – a sympathizer with terrorism, from the days of the IRA’s “armed struggle” against British rule right through to the Palestinians’ use of suicide bombings in the present day. Just two weeks after jihadists killed 52 people on the London transport system, Ken was mitigating (though not excusing) Palestinian terrorism by opining that they “don’t have jet planes, don’t have tanks, they only have their bodies to use as weapons” – moving Mark Steyn wryly to note that Livingstone’s opposition to Islamist suicide bombers was strictly conditional on their selection of Israeli rather than British targets.
Most egregiously of all, Livingstone has extended an unapologetic welcome, under the imprimatur of the London Mayoralty, to Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the Muslim cleric who has ruled inter alia that homosexuals should be stoned to death – and that unborn Israeli children are legitimate targets for ‘martyrdom operations’, as they will one day wear a uniform in defense of the Jewish state. When the press drew attention to these statements, Livingstone publicly apologized to his honored visitor for the British media’s “xenophobia”.
There’s currently a fierce debate going on among the British center-left as to what to do with Ken; whether a vote for any other candidate would let the Conservative in and thus constitute a betrayal of the “progressive” cause. But the truth is that Livingstone belongs to a strain of the totalitarian left that is as far removed from mainstream center-left politics as at any time in its history, and that has in recent times found the strangest and most noxious of bedfellows in the Qaradawis and Ahmadinejads of this world – reactionary bigots whose sole redeeming feature is a willingness to thumb their noses at the Great Satan in the White House, a man Livingstone once described without irony as “the greatest threat to life on this planet”. Livingstone still practices the discredited and divisive identity politics of the fossilised far Left; in the hands of a Mayor of London, these are no mere socialist parlor games but damaging follies that threaten the success of a great city.
The outcome of the May 1st poll is still too close to call; either way, the incumbent faces a real fight to get re-elected, and not before time. A return to the political wilderness would be most welcome for this most repulsive of political operators.