London Mayor's Race Pits Pocketbook Against Personality in an Age of Austerity

With the U.K. in the midst of a double-dip recession, you might expect Londoners to toss the incumbent conservative whose party also runs the nation -- if only he weren't so entertaining.


LONDON -- Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, might be the most British politician alive. He certainly embodies a cheerful stereotype of Britishness -- posh, tubby, witty, and eccentric. His stumbles and bumbles are so endearing that you'd be forgiven for thinking they were an example of studied ignorance. And yet, Johnson is fast emerging as the United Kingdom's most important and successful right-wing politician.

If he wins re-election in Thursday's mayoral balloting, he could well become the next prime minister.

The contest ought to be a test of the mood of the British people towards austerity and cuts. Johnson's Conservative Party has governed the UK nationally for nearly two years now and has made getting the country's finances in order its priority -- with the result that public spending has been cut and uncompetitive tax rates left largely unchanged. Lacking stimulus, the economy has entered a double dip recession. Therefore, the mayoral race should be an opportunity to reject the government's strategy for recovery -- and Boris Johnson along with it. It's reasonable to expect London's huddled masses to flock to the opposition Labour Party's left-wing candidate, "Red" Ken Livingstone, instead.

Yet the London mayoral election has little to do with policies and a lot to do with personalities. The battle lines of British politics are drawn by class, region, accent, and wealth. Johnson and Livingstone represent vastly different experiences of life in London, and how people vote on Thursday will probably reflect how they identify with those life stories. Johnson is more likeable than Livingstone, so Johnson is the favorite to win. It's that simple.

Livingstone is the older (but not necessarily wiser) candidate. His family hailed from working-class Lambeth: his father was a sailor and his mother a dancer in musical hall. Livingstone left home with barely any qualifications and became an assistant in a laboratory (where he looked after the test subject animals). In 1973, he won a seat on the Greater London Council as a Labour candidate and, in 1981, rose to become its leader. That's where he stayed until the GLC's abolition by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher in 1986.

Livingstone was the archetypal post-1960s socialist, blending machine politics with swinging liberal idealism (think Richard Daley crossed with Dan Savage). His signature, and most popular, policy was to cut fares for public transport, but he also met with the Irish Republican Army to publicize its struggle, handed out grants to gay and lesbian organizations, declared London to be a "nuclear free zone," and even put a huge billboard advertizing unemployment numbers atop City Hall. He made his reputation for outrageousness by declaring at the height of the AIDS crisis, "Everyone is bisexual."

With his socialist rhetoric and fascination with pond life (he kept newts as pets), "Red" Ken appeared to his critics as the embodiment of the leftist public servant gone wild. And yet, much like Johnson, his honesty and humor won many people over. When democratic local government was restored to London in 2000, Livingstone easily won back control of the city on a leftwing platform. It was almost with regret that voters threw him out in 2008 -- largely as a protest vote against the then hugely unpopular national Labour government. Johnson won the mayoralty that year as much through luck as ability.

Compare Livingstone's impeccably leftwing resume with that of Boris. Johnson was born into an upper-middle class home whose family tree reads like that of a character from PG Wodehouse (it contains a paleographer, a government minister in the Ottoman Empire, King George II, and the offspring of a liaison between Prince Paul of Württemberg and a German actress). Johnson was educated at Eton and Oxford with future Prime Minister David Cameron, and the two have a classic British upper-class friendship -- mutual affection expressed as bitter rivalry. After Oxford, Johnson spent one week as a management consultant ("Try as I might, I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth profit matrix, and stay conscious" he told he told the Glasgow Herald), a year as a reporter for the London Times (sacked for falsifying a quotation from his own godfather), and finally settled down as a writer for the Daily Telegraph and editor of the Spectator. Johnson entered Parliament in 2001 for the quaint hamlet of Henley (many miles from London) and proceeded to offend nearly every demographic, including Afro-Caribbeans, gays and lesbians, and people from Liverpool.

How could this Falstaffian throwback survive in modern British politics? Two reasons. First, the British love a rogue. Second, recognizing that the life of the legislator was not for him, Johnson wisely settled on the London mayoralty as an alternative route to the top. With its high media profile and freedom to pursue whatever causes he fancied, the job offered Johnson a unique platform from which to rail against mediocrity and socialism. To quote the man himself: "If you vote for the Conservatives, your wife will get bigger breasts, and your chances of driving a BMW M3 will increase." His campaign to become boss of London probably seemed -- to use the lingua franca of Eton -- like a terrific wheeze.

Alas, Johnson won the mayoralty at a moment of crisis for London. The recession had hit hard and the financial bubble ended, pushing up unemployment and making it tougher to afford absurdly high rents. In 2011, the city was hit by its worst rioting in three decades, sparked by the police shooting of a black criminal suspect. Five people were killed, 16 injured, 3,100 arrested, and over £200 million of property was damaged. Johnson was criticized for a slow and inappropriate response (he was holidaying in Canada when the riots began and his return to London was delayed). Combined with the harsh austerity budgets being imposed by Johnson's friend/rival, Prime Minister David Cameron, the chances of his re-election on Thursday ought to be slim. And yet, on the contrary, Johnson is ahead of Livingstone in the polls. Why?

To give him credit, Johnson has kept city taxes from going up and handled the forthcoming Olympic Games well. Moreover, the Labour Party made a mistake by re-nominating Livingstone. The discovery that he avoided income tax by declaring himself as a business (and then employing his wife in it) tarnished his image, and he lost further legitimacy when he pursued a bizarre war of words with the city's Jewish community. After comparing a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard, he reportedly told a group of Jewish Londoners that he didn't expect to win their community's vote because "rich Jews" don't vote Labour.

Johnson has thus projected himself to the front of the race simply by being the better-seeming man: avuncular, charming, clean. To UK conservatives, Johnson is a voice of consistent sanity who sits somewhere to the right of Cameron. To left-wing voters, he is a little incompetent but surely too daft to be the new Margaret Thatcher. For everyone in the middle, he's that nice man on the television with the unruly hair. This carefully crafted appeal to everyone (what the British call "the common touch") leaves the mayor well placed to take his ambitions even further. Presuming that he is re-elected, Johnson could easily find a Parliamentary seat from which to launch a campaign for his party's leadership (he's adored by the Conservative rank-and-file) and, from there, Number 10 Downing Street. It's something that Johnson repeatedly and adamantly denies he wants to do -- which is politician-speak for "I can't wait to get started."

The clash between Livingstone and Johnson is tragically representative of the state of British politics. The left is old and tired; the right is dominated by a schoolboy sentimentality that often betrays a brutal view of the world. Lacking any real substance to engage with, Londoners have gravitated from Red Ken's socialism to Boris's eccentricity. One might argue that with parlous public finances and a crippling recession, there is little any mayor could do alone to relieve Britain's woes. In that case, why not vote the more entertaining option? With Boris Johnson, one is always curious to see what he will do next. If he wins, we will at least get four more years of laughter -- along with the eternal promise of "bigger breasts" and nicer cars.