We’re coming up to the London mayoral election, where the second most powerful British politician is elected; the standard of debate is excellent, as it should be in such an important contest, and the media are doing their job of challenging the candidates on the many critical issues faced by London.
Not. Hopefully you were quick to spot my sarcasm. As is usually the case in important UK political decisions, the race is being trivialised and reduced to two personalities. London’s ever-moronic paper, the Evening Standard, has failed to hold Mayor Boris to account, as has most of the national press, and the entire race has been reduced to discussing smear stories against Livingstone, which are used to dispel any talk about issues and policies.
So let’s cut out the crap: it doesn’t matter if you like or dislike Ken or Boris. It doesn’t matter that Ken keeps newts and can therefore be labelled “slimy”. What matters is that one of the most powerful political positions is up for grabs, but morons are discussing Boris’s hair.
The reality is, only Ken Livingstone can defeat Boris Johnson; and here’s a selection of reasons why you should vote for him with either your first or second preference vote.
Ken was Mayor from 2000 and 2008, so there’s no need to speculate; his commitment to good public transport, and to reducing road traffic and air pollution, was nothing short of impeccable. He introduced the congestion charge scheme despite screams from the car industry and the media; he was loudly told the scheme would fail; but it didn’t. It reduced the number of cars, sped up traffic in London and reduced air pollution. He then extended the scheme to the west, again to screams from wealthy car-owning residents of Kensington and Chelsea; but the extension was again a success, and won over local people. Before the 2008 election, he announced plans to charge drivers of high-polluting vehicles (which I and many others would say have no place in a crowded city) £25 a day if they wanted to drive into the centre. This would have further cut congestion by cutting the number of super-large cars, and improved air quality by removing the worst polluters.
Boris, in order to win votes from Kensington and Chelsea drivers (one of the UK’s wealthiest demographics), promised to scrap the Western Extension Zone. This he did, to the benefit of very few and the detriment of many. Boris also scrapped plans to charge high-polluting vehicles £25 – much to the delight of Porsche, who had been suing Livingstone, and whom Boris paid an immediate £400,000 of our money in settlement. After instituting a 25% rise in congestion charge, Boris then froze the cost, benefiting car drivers and leading to an increase in congestion and air pollution. London is now regularly in breach of EU air pollution guidelines, with a resultant rise in breathing disorders and cost to the NHS. It’s worth noting that Boris’s response to worsening air pollution was to attempt a cover-up.
The situation inherited by Ken in 2000 was disastrous, particularly for bus users. Ken put around 5,000 more buses on the road, and enforced bus lane usage for the first time, leading to faster bus journeys. The congestion charge also enabled buses to run faster. On busy main roads, Ken introduced bendy buses which could rapidly move large numbers of people with minimal stopping time. The anti-Ken Evening Standard began a campaign, falsely labelling the buses as dangerous to cyclists; this was a straight lie. Not a single death occurred due to the introduction of bendy buses. Ken also introduced the Oyster card, speeding up and simplifying journeys, and making ticketing less labour-intensive.
In response to the farcical campaign against bendies, Boris promised to scrap them and commission a new Routemaster bus. The new bus wasn’t necessary, and turned out to be hugely expensive at £8m each; only a handful of the new buses have been introduced (“coincidentally” just in time for the mayoral election) but for the same price, 96 hybrid buses could have been rolled out instead. The new bus turns out to be nothing but a multi-million pound election campaign ad for Boris, funded by us, and although it’s admittedly pretty, has done nothing to improve London’s transport.
And let’s not forget: while holding down the cost of congestion charge, Boris introduced huge fare rises – up to 83% in some cases.
Boris has introduced two initiatives: the Barclays-sponsored cycle rental scheme, and cycle super-highways. The former is a nice idea that already works well in Paris, Barcelona and elsewhere. I joined it the moment it appeared, and it worked well, for a few weeks. Then, demand picked up and the scheme’s mismanagement and under-funding meant that it became increasingly difficult to use. The cycles tend to distribute themselves unevenly – for example, in the mornings, they migrate from the outer stations such as Euston and Waterloo to the centre of London. If the scheme is to remain usable, cycles must be collected from full docks and put in empty ones. This redistribution system appears to have completely failed; it’s rare to be able to complete an end-to-end journey – either no bike is available at the start, or no free dock can be found at the end. It’s a simple management issue, but as so often noted, Boris doesn’t do management. I quit the scheme after the first year.
Boris’s other cycling “achievement” was the introduction of the “cycle superhighways”. Great name – useless scheme. For a mere £100m or so, Londoners got shiny new blue paint on the roads to mark out the highways. Unfortunately, that’s about all they got. The blue lanes aren’t protected by any kerbs or physical obstacles to motor vehicles, and cars are allowed to drive in them if they want. Inevitably, deaths have occurred on the super-highways; the scheme joins the new bus as an example of an expensive but worthless high-profile scheme whose ultimate aim seems to be the promotion of Mayor Boris.
The introduction of the position of Mayor gave London its first chance to develop a city-wide identity since Thatcher scrapped the GLC in the 1980s, and Ken took full advantage. I remember three areas that stood out, and heralded a return of pride in our city.
The first was London’s response to the Iraq War. Our Prime Minister Tony Blair had dragged the UK into an illegal war, against the wishes of the British people. A few months after the start of the war, in late-2003, Bush came to London on a state visit. A huge rally was held in Trafalgar Square to protest the presence of a war criminal in Buckingham Palace. Meanwhile, a few miles further east, Ken Livingstone hosted an anti-war event to show the disgust of Londoners against Bush, Blair and their acts of mass murder. He had also spoken brilliantly at London’s immense anti-war march in February 2003. It was a moment to be proud of London at a time when many were ashamed to be British. It goes without saying that Mayor Boris has not repeated such an event, and has left London devoid of a sense of community or leadership.
The second was the redesign of Trafalgar Square itself. London’s places of beauty had slowly been torn apart by the car lobby, and Trafalgar Square itself became a dirty, polluted roundabout. Ken’s redesign saw a large part of the square pedestrianised, and reclaimed from cars by pedestrians. Artworks were displayed and a sweeping staircase led from the square up to the National Gallery. The new Trafalgar Square is a testament to Ken’s love of London, and his hard work as mayor. Conversely, Boris seems to work little and care even less.
The third was the magnificent RISE festival, a free music festival with an anti-racism theme, that attracted top music acts, and brought together Londoners from all communities in a day of celebration. This became London’s second festival, after the Notting Hill Carnival, and an important community hub. Boris, elected at a time when racial tensions were rising and far-right groups gaining in strength, virtually scrapped the festival. It was rescued by trade unions, but is now a far smaller event with a much lower profile.
London councils are being forced by the government to relocate poor families – not just the unemployed but many who work – to towns far from London. London is being socially cleansed; property prices are spiralling in a frenzy of speculation, and the poor are squeezed out. This is detrimental not just to our culture, but to the economy too; a city filled with bankers and media executives still needs lower-skilled workers. Boris has said, and done, nothing. He has failed in his duty to defend our city against the right-wing onslaught from central government.
Ken, as mayor, flew the flag for affordable housing and the maintenance of diverse communities. Indeed, he happily admitted that his prime reason for backing the London Olympics bid was to get East London redeveloped, and get large amounts of affordable new housing built.
The great bendy bus myth was one of two big lies used by the pro-Boris media to help him defeat Ken. The second was far more serious: the misreporting of a “knife crime epidemic” that didn’t actually happen. This resulted in an increased fear of crime and increasingly heavy policing. Random stop and search by police increased dramatically, and was especially used against young black and Asian men. The mayor has a duty to ensure London is being properly policed and listen to community concerns – but Boris has been the absent mayor. Community groups increasingly warned the mayor of an increase in anti-police feeling, and a breakdown in police-community relations. There were clear warnings of riots. And when they arrived in August 2011, few Londoners were surprised. Boris’s response? He turned up a few days later for a photo opportunity with local people who were sweeping the streets clean. He appeared to have little understanding of the issues; he didn’t go to Tottenham, the source of the riots. In short, he failed to lead.
We have an Alternative Vote system – so you can vote for Green, Liberal Democrat or whoever else you like. But Livingstone is the only one who can beat Boris, and deserves your second vote, if not your first. It really doesn’t matter if whether you think Ken is “slimy” or not – London is one of the world’s great cities, and deserves a leader who – pardon my language – gives a fuck about it.