I stayed up until about 3 a.m. on Thursday night, listlessly watching the BBC coverage of the local elections in England and Wales (the graphics get more elaborate every year; the presenters more desperate in their pretence that they’re broadcasting to anyone but politicians and insomniac election nuts). But, parochially, there’s only one race I’ve been following: the London mayoral election. Ken Livingstone may be unlikeable in some people’s eyes – ‘Vote Reptilian Stalinist!’ was a rallying cry going round, only half-jokingly, on Twitter recently – but he’s been the most, some would say the only, recognisable figure in London politics for a generation. There wasn’t much going on in my life in 1986 when the Greater London Council was abolished, and since it was what the politically obsessed adults around me were talking about, it seemed worth writing down in my Hello Kitty notebook.
Livingstone has made alliances and broken them when it suited him, not least with the Labour Party, which he left before becoming mayor as an independent candidate in 2000 and then rejoined before his re-election in 2004. This time he stood on a progressive platform with attractive pledges (attractive to anyone who thinks London is not just a city for the global rich) which included restoring the Educational Maintenance Allowance for 16 to 18-year-olds and establishing a lettings agency to regulate private-sector rents. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, published his full manifesto only on Tuesday. It seems unlikely that many of the 30-odd per cent of Londoners who voted (down from an already dismal 42 per cent in 2008) read either candidate’s manifesto.
As the contest seemed to be mostly about personality, the unlikeable Livingstone – whose greatest fault, perhaps an unforgivable one in a politician, is that he doesn’t care about being liked by either voters or colleagues – could only lose. There have been many arguments about the two men’s tax arrangements, but rather fewer about last August’s riots, when Johnson, away on holiday, was nowhere to be seen for three days until he reappeared with his post-riot clean-up broom held high. It’s hardly surprising that eight out of nine other British cities have just rejected the idea of having directly elected mayors of their own.
After the redistribution of second preferences, Johnson won by only 62,538 votes, but his victory is likely to overshadow his party’s losses in many of tomorrow’s papers. During his acceptance speech, he fiddled with his cuffs and praised the ‘neo-Victorian surge’ London is experiencing – he was talking about Olympic tat, though didn’t mention the short-range missiles that are to be deployed on top of blocks of flats this summer – and joked about having ‘a non-tax-payer-funded drink’ with his defeated rival. But it was Livingstone who sounded like a statesman, and far from unlikeable. He began with the Labour Party’s gains across the country, spoke of George Osborne’s economic policies putting us back into a double-dip recession, and said that ‘today’s teenagers are the first generation… who face a worse prospect than their parents’. No national Labour figure has made the same points so plainly. But then this was, Livingstone said, his last election.