Short Cuts

John Lanchester

The London mayoral elections are on 1 May. The elections for the London Assembly take place at the same time. One salient fact about them is that abstention isn’t a responsible option. The election takes place under a bizarrely complicated system in which 14 seats, belonging to geographical constituencies, are awarded on a first past the post basis. The remaining 11 seats are awarded according to a form of proportional representation known as the Modified d’Hondt Formula. (Modified d’Hondt . . . crazy name, crazy guy.) M d’H features an ‘exclude the loonies’ clause: for a party to win seats, it has to win more than 5 per cent of the overall vote. The British National Party is going to win votes in some parts of the capital where immigration is an inflamed issue. So anyone who doesn’t vote is helping the BNP win the seat in the assembly that they only narrowly missed in 2004, by helping them to get closer to that five per cent share.

The mayoral election operates under a different system, first past the post with a supplemental vote. Electors have two votes. In the first round, first choices are counted; a candidate who wins more than 50 per cent wins the election outright. (This doesn’t seem likely: the best performance so far was Ken Livingstone’s 39 per cent in 2000.) If no one has 50 per cent, the top two candidates have their second-choice votes added to their first-choice, and the one with the most votes is the winner. At the start of the campaign, opinion polls were showing Boris Johnson 12 points ahead of Ken Livingstone. This was a bit of a surprise, as Livingstone has never been seriously behind in the polls before, and Johnson hadn’t done any campaigning.

Livingstone’s popularity had been affected by a campaign in the Evening Standard attacking Lee Jasper, his Senior Policy Adviser on Equalities. The Standard hates Livingstone and has been swinging punches at him for years, without much evident effect until now. The stories, mainly written by Andrew Gilligan, he of the sexed-up dossier allegation, concerned funding given by the London Development Agency to organisations supposedly linked with Jasper. Livingstone angrily defended Jasper – a little too angrily, perhaps, and too free with allegations that Jasper’s critics were racist. The Standard campaign was very clever: rather than chuck in all the allegations and evidence at once, it spread them out and made great use of the paper’s many advertising billboards all over London. Jasper and Livingstone denied everything, but the political cost of doing so mounted, and Jasper was suspended on 15 February; then he resigned on 4 March, after the paper published sexually suggestive emails he had sent to a woman whose organisation had received funding from City Hall. Jasper blamed ‘the racist nature of a relentless media campaign’ for his resignation.

All this has been terrible for Livingstone. He seemed very slow to understand how damaging these allegations were, and keener to sling around accusations of racism than to tackle the substantive points about the use of public money. The Standard campaign had traction because it fed into a sense that, after eight years in power, Livingstone is losing touch with reality in the way that politicians often do after roughly that long in office. The case against him isn’t that he has been ineffective. The mayor has a personal mandate – the largest one of any politician in Europe except the presidents of France and Portugal – and the structure of the office was designed to concentrate executive power. It worked: the congestion charge was an extraordinary thing to bring off. But it does mean that Livingstone has been in power for a long time, and leaving aside specific beefs with him – like most Londoners I have a fair few – there is a widespread sense, among people in most respects sympathetic to him, that 12 years in office would be too much. He thought so himself once: ‘In a city that changes as rapidly as London it is hard to believe that a mayor who has served two terms will have the freshness of approach that is required to stay abreast of such a dynamic city.’

But – Boris Johnson as mayor of London? It’s hard to imagine, and if it happens it’ll be hard to take. I know quite a few people who know him (we overlapped at university) and the general view is that he put on a buffoon mask to become a celebrity, and now he can’t take it off. He’s very ambitious, everyone agrees on that, and he deliberately sought to become famous as a way of furthering his political career. The idea was that celebrity is the currency of politics in the way that money once was: instead of becoming rich before going into politics, as Tories once did (the Heseltine route), the contemporary path to power is first to become famous. Electors are much more likely to vote for you if they know who you are. For someone who markets himself as a bit of a throwback, this is a very modern and very American idea. Johnson is the first British politician to give it a real try.

Johnson’s electoral prospects improve by being viewed at a distance. Not that people don’t like him at close range – they do. Some people think he’s funny, and he clearly enjoys his own schtick, but that isn’t really the secret of his appeal, which is more to do with amiability and the ability to get himself into scrapes in a way which seems endearingly unpolitical. I find him likeable, but I wouldn’t want him to be in charge of Key Stage One at my son’s primary school. Livingstone must have wondered whether to portray Johnson as a serious person and therefore a serious menace to London, or to laugh him off, and let us marinate in the implausibility of Johnson as mayor. So far he’s done the first thing, which is understandable but might be a mistake. Just as 12 years for Ken would be too much, Boris is surely unthinkable in a major public office with real executive power.

The alternative would be for all progressive voters to switch their first-preference vote to the Liberal Democrat candidate, Brian Paddick. In mayoral elections to date the Lib Dems have done by far the best among second-round votes, so if Paddick were to get through the first round, he would win. The trouble is that Paddick is not just short on presentational skills, but genuinely induces narcolepsy. You fade in and out of consciousness until he stops talking. Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem candidate in 2004, might this time have had a chance to be mayor of London, but I don’t think Paddick does.

The funny thing is that while Labour is desperate not to lose the mayoral election – because it would be such a terrible harbinger for its general election prospects – the Conservatives may not be too keen to win. In 1934 Herbert Morrison, as leader of London County Council, consciously set out to run the city well to prove the viability of Labour as a party of government. Does Boris Johnson look like the man to do that for the Tories? Cameron might well feel that there is more profit in attacking Labour misgovernment than in offering a prominent target for his opponents to make the same charge – especially with the Olympics coming up, with their lavish potential for cock-ups, mismanagement and overspending. There has been speculation that the Tories’ ideal result would be a strong campaign to show their electoral viability, followed by a narrow win for Livingstone. If that doesn’t happen, Londoners may have to settle for taking dark pleasure in a result that both main parties view as a disaster.