The timing could not be more ironic. Tomorrow — Thursday May 1, the once and possibly future most sacred day for Communists — Londoners (including those who reside in its surrounding leafy green suburbs) will go to the polls. There being no Hillary equivalents on the ballot, they will be choosing among several men to determine who will be elected the Mayor of London, the second most powerful office in the UK.
It’s a real horse race. The pollsters give the edge to Ken Livingstone, aka “Red” Ken. Looking for a third term, “Red” Ken is an unrepentant uber-leftist who used to mention Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in his campaign literature. He went so far left, the Labour Party disowned him years ago. Yet his eight-year reign as London’s Mayor has not been ideological. It is more reminiscent of the old Daley machine in Chicago. Ken has raised cronyism to new heights.
For this and other reasons, England’s betting shops favor Livingstone’s opponent, the Oxford-educated Tory with a wild shock of blond hair, Boris Johnson, to win. So does The Gourmet Burger Kitchen at Tower Bridge which claims a near perfect record in predicting election outcomes. It reports that Boris Burgers are outselling Ken Burgers by almost two to one.
Running a distant third, it must be noted, is the candidate put up by the Liberal Democrats (the party left of plain old Labour). Brian Paddick is an openly gay former policeman, articulate and earnest, but he was not judged worthy of a listing on The Gourmet Burger menu. The English can be simultaneously eccentric — and so judgmental.
Still, there is no getting round the meaty issues on the table in this election. Just a week ago, Livingstone admitted that he only submitted London as a host candidate for the 2012 Summer Olympics because he couldn’t think of another way of extracting money from the populace to rehabilitate the East End and other bits of the City’s creaking infrastructure. Before this stealth tax confession, Livingstone (born 17 June 1945) went public with the news that he had fathered a few children in previous (unmarried) relationships — in addition to the toddlers he’s had with his current young wife. The spin was that he’s been a good Dad all along, however surreptiously. Very Kennedy-esque. Like New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, Red Ken is known for taking the Underground (subway), although it’s said no one pays much attention to him anymore when he does.
Perhaps this standoffish behavior comes from regular commuters who wish to have a bit of air conditioning on these subterranean saunas. It sometimes becomes so hot down the Tubes that the city sends paid public servants to hand out free bottles of water in an effort to prevent dehydration and strokes. Then there are the delays and price increases, not to mention the danger. Let’s not forget the 7/7 suicide bombers who hit three Underground lines.
Boris Johnson has offered some ideas about improving public transport. He’s promised to outlaw drinking on the Underground and the buses. Wow. Londoners are enthralled by the idea of not sitting (or standing in a human wedge) next to drunken footballers who often hurl (vomit) under these airless close contact conditions. Above ground, Johnson wants to take away the free (as in subsidized by taxes) city-issued transit passes from youths who bully their fellow passengers or trash the vehicles. Behave or pay your own way, says Boris. Very radical this Johnson fellow.
And he is somewhat of an odd duck. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (born in New York City in 1964) is the grandson of a liberal Turkish Muslim journalist who was welcomed into Britain as a political refugee during World War 1. Boris made his mark as the editor of the conservative magazine, The Spectator, and has been a regular guest on British telly. Often portrayed as a buffoon by the media, Johnson was elected as the Member of Parliament for Henley. The town is famous for its yuppie population, gentrified residents, their piles (as aging mansions are known in England) and for rowing races on the river that runs through it. The Thames.
When the prospect of becoming Mayor of London surfaced, by all accounts, Johnson decided on a course of self-discipline. He found himself a stern group of advisers and put his Oxford education to work for him. Of late, he’s taken to referring to his classical hero, Pericles, in campaign appearances. Pericles had quite lofty ideals about civil life and responsibilities in ancient Greece. Red Ken’s response was to point out that Johnson never managed anything bigger than an influential (but limited circulation) conservative periodical, painting Boris as a sort of junior league William F. Buckley.
Red Ken has pulled out a few other campaign attack options. When it looked as if his fortunes were on the wane, he hired Barack Obama’s political public relations people, Blue State Digital (and refuses to say what he’s paid them). Boris has been using local talent, not out-sourcing.
There are other parallels between London’s Mayoral contest and the US primary process. Red Ken and Boris have participated in 18 public debates. Last week, after their final TV interrogation, the sole BBC interviewer was rubbished over his treatment of Johnson, an echo of the Gibson/Stephanopoulos event on ABC. Religious issues have also surfaced. Livingston has taken heat for sharing a stage with a Muslim cleric, Yusuf Al- Qaradawi, a man who feels that wife beating and suicide bombings are (multi) culturally acceptable. This has pretty much assured Johnson will get the majority of votes from London’s Jewish community. Based on his capricious re-routing of major city thoroughfares and his congestion (one pays up to £25/$50 to motor into Central London) charging scheme, Livingstone also cannot count on votes from car owners, nor from a single taxi driver. If you visit London, ask your driver for details.
Ken Livingstone has gratuitously offered Boris Johnson a job is he loses the election. But speculation has it that if Boris is victorious, he’s an up-and-comer in the Tory Party. If so, he’s already made that an uneasy career road for himself by asserting that he will face off against whoever is running the government if he thinks Londoners are being ill-served. Insiders forecast a nail biting (up-all-night) vote count. There will be no hanging chads, but the winner may not be decided until well into May 2. With the fortunes of Gordon Brown and the Labour Party on a serious decline, a Tory takeover of England’s capitol city could presage David Cameron’s rise as the next Prime Minister by the summer of 2010.