London deserves a better mayoral campaign

by Peter Watt

Does anyone outside the heady world of politics actually care about the London mayoral election?

Setting aside the train wreck of last night’s debate on Newsnight, the mayoralty is one of the highest profile positions in British politics and carries the biggest personal mandate for any politician in Europe, bar the French presidency. It should matter.

The reason I ask is that my 18 year old daughter (18 last week) received her poll card recently.  I overheard her chatting to a friend about the fact that she could now vote which she was pleased about.  But then she said that she wasn’t actually sure if she should bother voting at all.  So I decided that I would tackle this appalling apathy head on and explain the importance of voting and the particular merits of voting in the London mayoral election.

But I decided, I had better marshal my thoughts first – you know what tricky buggers teenagers can be if you’re not prepared.  Anyway, I worked up what I hoped would be a concise set of arguments that set out the importance of democracy and of voting.  People have died for the right to vote; having your say; preserving freedoms and so on.  It wasn’t exactly Mandelaesque but it wasn’t bad.   But then I began thinking about the reasons to specifically vote in the London mayoral election and I struggled.

This has to be one of the least inspiring election campaigns that I have ever witnessed.  It seems to boil down to: vote for Ken because he isn’t Boris or vote for Boris because he isn’t Ken.  Unless you want to vote for some bloke called Brian whose most endearing feature seems to be that he isn’t called Boris or Ken.  I mean beyond that, what else is there?

According to Ken’s website, he is going to give all Londoners a “Fare Deal” by cutting transport costs.  Well that’s good.  But is that it?  According to Boris’s website the main reason to vote for him is to re-elect him.  Not even a fare cut from Boris then.  But to be fair, if the opportunity to re-elect Boris is not enough to excite you then if you click through to the main site then you learn that by voting for Boris you can cut waste, create an Olympic legacy and…to be honest I got bored.  It’s not really the stuff of political legend is it?

They are both racing around London in battle buses (now there is a misnomer) boring Londoners into submission.  The most exciting thing to have happened so far involved Boris squaring up to Ken in LBC Radio’s lift and calling him a “f***ing liar”.  At least that delivered an injection of passion I suppose.  It’s just a pity that it took a discussion about each other’s tax affairs to get their respective pulses racing.

If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny.  They are fighting it out to be the leader of London – one of the world’s great cities in the year that the Olympics are coming to town no less.  But the race to the hot seat at City Hall is turning out to be less Olympic, more egg and spoon.  It is uninspiring and looks self-serving with neither side doing themselves any real favours.

Now I know that Ken’s campaign will point to the hundreds of people volunteering for him as a sign of their success.  But they aren’t volunteering because they are inspired by the possibility of a Ken Mayoralty, any more than Boris’s volunteers really care about a second term for Boris.  For the activists it is a tribal fight.  They want to win because winning is what really matters.  That’s certainly what motivated me to deliver leaflets and direct mail in recent weeks.  And that is all fine and dandy except that that passion is not transferring itself into the homes of the millions of Londoners eligible to vote in May.  Hundreds of thousands of pounds are being spent churning out millions of mailshots and emails while thousands of volunteers knock on even more doors, but the recipients generally couldn’t care less as the whole thing passes them by.  Voters have a sense that the contenders are competing in a game that doesn’t really involve them.

No doubt that there are lots of very good reasons to vote for either Ken or Boris.  The trouble is, they have both forgotten to tell people what they are, as they fight their own private battle while excluding their voters.  They have forgotten that voters don’t spend their entire time thinking about mayoral elections, or the career-impact the result might have on the protagonists just because they and their teams do.  Nor do they seem to have noticed that whatever they think their relative merits are, they have failed to get that message through to the majority of London’s voters.  Quite frankly people will vote on their impressions of the candidates, built up over years not weeks.

So… back to my daughter and her first election. About the best I think I can do, is to explain that she should vote for “Fare Deal” Ken because he’s not Boris; I suspect it won’t be enough.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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7 Responses to “London deserves a better mayoral campaign”

  1. John P Reid says:

    This is tragically true, Livingstone blamed the bright young things that got him expleed in 2000, yet it’s these bright young things who don’t understnad how disliked Ken is, not boris being liked.

  2. Chris Kitcher says:

    As someone outside London you are dead right, I don’t give a toss who wins the mayoral race.

    What worries me more is that both of these individuals are axiomatic of the present poor standard of politician that we have in this country. All of the major parties are solely interested in securing election for its own sake.

    Why do we not have a political party that has gaols and ambitions that it is willing to defend in the court of public scrutiny.

  3. Dave Hollins says:

    No wonder the Labour party did so badly under Peter Watt.

    If you can’t see the difference between Livingstone and Johnson on housing, planning, car congestion, transport and fares, EMA, and the rest you must be blind.

    The tone of the election has been determined by Johnson and Lynton Crosby and avoiding the real issues is the only way they can win. From Gilligan down, there are probably more people on negative campaigning against Ken than Labour has in its whole campaign. The media is hostile as it usually is to Labour candidates, but with friends like you who need enemies?

    Wake up Peter, the game is about winning elections for Labour candidates with good policies, not making your name as a columnist.

  4. paul barker says:

    Your party set up a rigged system intended to make sure that only labour or tory candidated could win, your party then picked a candidate who couldnt win, making the whole election pointless. The only function ken serves is to stop Brian Paddick.
    Far from campaigning you should be apologising.

  5. Mike Homfray says:

    I think this is the inevitable outcome of the mayoral system. Personality politics.

  6. madasafish says:

    Complaining about personality in politics is like complaining that salt is salty..

    After all, Tony Blair was charismatic and won 3 GEs in a row. Gordon Brown was a clear turnoff and won nothing. See also Hague , Ian Duncan Smith , Howard and Cameron…

  7. Paul Bower says:

    We have to work with what we have got. Ken is not perfect and there should have been more competition for the candidacy. Oona was Ok but not really up to it. However, if you are looking for a job, can’t afford public transport and need somewhere to live Ken is the better candiate. If you are concerned about securing a parking space for the Porsche then vote for Boris. Brian Paddick would be polling 100% more if he did not have the Lib Dem albatros hung around his neck. He is smart and tough. Give the man a job. He may well come 4th. Whatever the result Cameron has a problem. If Boris wins he becomes the King Across the Water. Leader in waiting. If he loses he will use his finely honed media skills, contacts and excellent writing to blame Cameron ( granny tax, 20% on pasties, cuts in family credit, NHS deforms). p.s Labour is for the first time since 2007 narrow favourite at the bookies to win the next election. Rejoice! Paul Bower

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