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

Share

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

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions