Steve Richards: Which mayoral candidate will improve life in the city? That's all London need ask

I have no doubt the capital would be a better place to live in four years' time if Ken were to win again

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We live in an era where personality seems to matter much more than policy. Take the fashionable explanations for the crises afflicting David Cameron. He and his allies are posh. They are out of touch. Cameron is lazy. Virtually nowhere is there any focus on the more obvious explanation. The Coalition is implementing economic policies and public service reforms that make Margaret Thatcher seem like a pragmatic centrist.

The problem is the policies, not the personalities. Cameron is not out of touch. It is impossible to be out of touch in British politics. With opinion polls, focus groups and a noisy media, the bigger danger for leaders is that they are too in touch. The fact that Cameron and most of his close allies are posh is an issue, but not a decisive one. Harold Macmillan was posh and the policies of the Coalition make Macmillan seem like a socialist. No, it is the policies. If the policies were working, we would all be paying homage to their personalities.

I put the case for a new focus on policies as voting takes place in London's mayoral election and as referendums are held in other big cities on the principle of having a mayor. I am a fan of mayors on the basis of what has happened in London in relation to policy. It is easy to forget what the capital was like before the last government created the post, one of its more successful constitutional innovations. Tubes were hopelessly unreliable. Buses were nowhere to be seen. Queues for tickets at stations were like scenes from a Third World country. Theatres warned audiences to arrive early because transport was so unreliable they might miss the start.

I recall being so suspicious about one comically erratic bus service, I sought to find out who was responsible. Finally, I tracked down some dodgy figure in Potters Bar. He denied there was a problem and there was nothing more I could do. There was no accountability and we all had to put up with it. A common question posed on a stationary tube was: "To whom do we complain about this?" No one knew. Not surprisingly, in their memoirs, most of Margaret Thatcher's senior ministers admit that the abolition of the GLC and other metropolitan authorities was one of their biggest mistakes.

But the improvements in the capital's quality of life did not happen simply because of a constitutional change – although that helped, as no one could hide in Potters Bar any longer. The reform was cautiously implemented, a classic New Labour initiative in which central government gave London a Mayor, but with virtually no power. When elected as the first Mayor, Ken Livingstone discovered levers to bring about change that Whitehall ministers did not know even existed. The Mayor has no tax-raising powers, but Livingstone introduced a Congestion Charge, an act of political courage, administered efficiently. The charge paid for additional buses and briefly made London more tolerable for motorists. The Oyster Card replaced long queues for Tube tickets, and Ken persuaded reluctant overground train companies to sign up, too. Parts of the centre were pedestrianised and became cool, as cool as European cities used to local leadership. He initiated the scheme for bikes which Boris inherited when he became leader. As someone who gave up on public transport in the mid 1990s, I am grateful for that policy record.

Livingstone was no good at national politics. He is a poor campaigner. In his inanely provocative public proclamations, he is like a student politician trying to get noticed, perhaps because he never was a student, not even a sixth-form student. He is not a team player. In the 1980s at a pivotal meeting of Labour's National Executive, Livingstone declared he would not be censored from making internal criticisms. A livid Neil Kinnock responded: "Censored? You have been on every bloody outlet attacking me for the last 24 hours." Livingstone has a genius for alienating his own side. But, like the posh jibes against Cameron, all these observations about Livingstone are irrelevant when making a judgement on what is likely to happen to a city in terms of policy. His personal tax arrangements impact on himself and his family alone. Evidently, his public comments can be deeply offensive as they have offended some of the most-fair minded and forensic columnists, but the slogans go nowhere. He is not standing to be Foreign Secretary.

Similarly, I do not care how much Boris earns for his column or his TV appearances, nor do I believe him to be a buffoon. He has achieved what all good political columnists should aim to do, hosting peak-time entertainment shows and going into politics. Somehow or other he has managed to do both at the same time; another form of genius. His speeches to the Conservative party conference as Mayor are ardently Keynesian in their defence of higher public spending in London and in their accurate assertion that the investment benefits the entire country. Fleetingly, they make him seem like Ed Balls's closest supporter. While parts of Sonia Purnell's brilliant biography of Boris are damning, the author also captures an introspective dimension that defies public caricature.

But then I look at the policies for London and see no pattern to compete with Livingstone. There is no reason why I should. Boris does not come from the same background of besieged local government that gives Ken a distinct talent for making the most of puny powers. Boris has not done badly, but then again, in comparison with Ken, he has not done very much at all.

The campaign has focused hardly at all on policy. This is the single downside of Mayors. Even more than in national politics, personality is all. Ken has had a high public profile since the early 1980s, when the limit for national exposure in this easily bored anti-politics era is a decade. Boris is fresher and has played it safe. Broadcasters have not found a way of making candidates' debates watchable. Instead, we learn how much the candidates earn and their views on the top rate of tax over which they have no control.

But London is a better place for the Mayor, and largely because of Livingstone's policies. On the basis of policy record alone, I have no doubt London would be a better place to live in four years' time if Livingstone were to win again. If Boris is the victor, I suspect he will have other forms of leadership on his mind before very long.

s.richards@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/steverichards14

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