international analysis and commentary

The London mayoral election, the Olympic Games and the future of Cameron’s government

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On May 3rd, only three months before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, Londoners will be called to vote for a new mayor and the London Assembly. Boris Johnson, the current mayor, is running again for another four-year term. To most voters, this election seems like a replay of the last one because the Labour candidate is Ken Livingstone (nicknamed “Red Ken”), the former mayor of London defeated by Boris Johnson in 2008.

London is currently the only city in the UK where the mayor can be directly elected by the people and this practice only began in 2000 with the election of Livingstone as first Mayor of London. Nowadays, several cities are requesting the possibility to also directly elect their own mayor. The powers of the Mayor of London are not as significant and wide-ranging as those of a mayor in the US, but the one area over which he/she has complete control is public transportation. In the other areas of policy such as housing, planning, security, environment and culture, the mayor’s power has been quite limited. However new powers recently granted to the office of mayor could change the role of this political figure and have a strong impact on local government throughout the UK. The aim of the extended powers is to give councils the tools to effectively solve citizens’ problems.  

Indeed, London is a city characterized by never-ending issues related to housing and it is hoped that the new mayor will be able to solve them thanks to these new powers and the possibility to control the entire budget for the London area, which is one third of the entire national pot devolved to this specific policy. In addition, he will also have the land to build on. The housing problem is probably the main issue currently affecting Londoners on the ground. In a recent poll by Shelter, almost 1.8 million Londoners declared that they will move out of the city in the near future due to the rising cost of housing. Furthermore, the next Mayor of London will face the legacy of the Olympic Games, which includes the future conversion of the sport infrastructure without further impacting on the strained public budget, already suffering from the rising costs of the Games (now more than double those estimated in the initial plan).

The electoral campaign has been brutal among the seven candidates, in particular between Johnson and Livingstone. In a live radio debate, they argued fiercely, making accusations at each other, and even continuing the fight after the transmission. The campaign is focusing more on the personalities of the candidates than on policy. The quarrel over the tax declarations of the candidates grabbed headlines in the electoral campaign for two weeks while other primary policy issues such as transport, housing, public order and the Olympic legacy were almost never part of political discourse. Several observers have noted that this is a clear sign of the Americanization of British politics, in which personality and tax returns are the main themes. Indeed, the incumbent has focused on keeping the personality battle and tax issues on the agenda because on these topics he can likely defeat the Labour candidate. It seems that the problems of Londoners, in particular the housing issue, are being forgotten amid the ego clashes of this campaign.

Another issue mainly untouched by the two main candidates is the glaring problem of public order in London. Only one year after the riots that brought the city to its knees, this issue has been quoted in the different political manifestos, but has not been present in the ongoing political campaign rhetoric.

The incumbent has also made it his mission to take on the trade unions in a way not seen in British politics since 1980. The London Tube, and its new driver-less trains, find themselves at the center of a political fight which might affect Johnson’s campaign.

One common denominator between Livingstone and Johnson is their will to distance themselves as far as possible from their own parties. The reason is clear and it is based on voter disillusionment with old party politics perceived as corrupt, unable to govern and directly linked to the austerity measures that have heavily affected the whole population.

Among the other candidates, the independent Siobhan Benita has emerged as a huge surprise for British politics. The 40-year-old former senior civil servant is shaking up the campaign and attracting many voters. She is stable in the running for third place and the support gained from several relevant public personalities is helping her attract the attention of the media, and consequently the attention of voters. This independent candidate is bridging the gap thanks to supporters who are tired of the “two man show” and the subsequent political soap opera. Indeed, her slogan is “They’re both as bad as each other” and she could cause a revolution in British politics if she wins. Her main appeal is her distance from the parties as well as her campaign based on concrete projects such as the third runway in Heathrow, lower fares on public transport and a new housing plan. The other candidates for the mayoral election are Brian Paddick (Lib-Dem), Lawrence Webb (UKIP), Carlos Cortiglia (BNP) and Jenny Jones (Green). Their role in the campaign up until now has been marginal.

It will be a close race between Livingstone and Johnson, with the outsider Siobhan positioning herself close to them. The electoral turnout will affect the outcome. High turnout will help the Labour candidate, lower turnout will help the Tory, but the independent Benita could change the rules of the game much more radically than expected.

On May 3rd, local elections will be held not only in London, but across the UK in a total of 131 local councils. It will be a key test for the coalition government composed of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives could lose more than 400 councillors and the Lib-Dems 250, according to political experts. In particular, the Lib-Dems will be seriously affected in the north of England where they represent the only party of the government present in the local council (the Conservatives hold few if any council seats in this area of the country). The election may seriously affect the long-term stability of the government. Also for Labour, the election will be a key test to outline the political path for the coming years. Analysts predict that they will increase their number of councillors by between 300 and 700, though it is more likely that they will gain around 600. Labour will probably gain control in Birmingham, the second biggest city in the UK. However, election night for Labour will not be the shining moment that it might seem from the number of councillors they expect to gain. Glasgow is likely to be lost to the advantage of the Scottish National Party, causing a huge embarrassment for Labour as the Scottish city represents one of the jewels in the party’s crown.

The outcome of the London mayoral election will not bring any radical change to British politics, but the outcome of the elections in the rest of the UK will have a long-term impact on the government coalition and its ability to govern.