The Ken and Boris Show

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Each man is a political celebrity, instantly recognisable in London by first name only. Between them they’ve notched a staggering array of controversies involving allegations of infidelity, bigotry and dishonesty, yet each has managed to bat on in public life. One is even something of a TV celebrity, with a reputation for on-air buffoonery and infamy for viciously tackling a German opponent in a charity soccer match.

Welcome to the Ken versus Boris show – the London Election – in which the city’s seven and a half million residents decide who will be their next mayor: Labour’s Ken Livingstone or the Conservatives’ Boris Johnson. The poll takes place this Thursday UK time.

This contest counts. London may not be Washington or Beijing, but the UK capital is still a city of major world significance in financial and cultural terms. The election for London mayor is no obscure borough side show, but a battle over real power and influence.

Both men excite foam at the mouths of their opponents. The London Evening Standard, for example, has run an extraordinary personalised campaign against Livingstone. The Standard‘s headline "Suicide Bomb Backer runs Ken Campaign" was just one of many banners sensationally targeting the incumbent.

On the other hand, many on the British left are stupefied that Johnson is even in the game. When Johnson’s candidacy first went live last year, the progressive Compass group put out a document entitled "Boris Johnson a Member of the Hard Tory Right", in which were reprinted many of the candidate’s most infamous statements, including his use of the term "picaninnies" and his description of Africans as having "watermelon smiles".

At times the election race has seemed like a pantomime of the English class system. The incumbent Livingstone has London working class roots, while his opponent is of Tory stock and a product of Eton and Oxford.

The mayoral office has wide authority, including over key public appointments, planning, development, transport, culture and the environment. Although there has been some convergence between the candidates as the race has gone on, the election is also a genuine ideological contest between a social democrat and a neo-liberal.

In policy terms, green issues are one area where the candidates can still be distinguished. The London congestion charge has reduced traffic in the city and brought down emissions. Livingstone is proposing an even higher tariff on the most polluting cars if he is reelected. On the other hand Johnson, who supports the US Government’s refusal to ratify Kyoto, opposes any rise in the congestion charge and wants to relax the existing system.

On the national scene, the mayoral poll is regarded as being a vital test of momentum. If Livingstone wins, Gordon Brown’s Government will gain renewed hope. But if Johnson wins, the Tories will have greater reason to be confident of winning the next general election.

There are other candidates – from the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and a number of fringe groups – but none of them stand a chance. Nevertheless, unlike UK parliamentary elections, second preferences are counted, so minor party support is significant.

There is also a local link to the counting. Australians and other citizens of the Commonwealth who live in London are entitled to a vote. Who knows, in a close ballot it could be the Australian diaspora that decides things.

The polls have fluctuated and most pundits seem reticent to call the winner. But there is no doubt about what is at stake in this election: change the mayor, change the city.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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