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London’s embarrassment

The Hindu, 1st June

“This is the end of political correctness in London,” exulted a Conservative as newly elected Mayor Boris Johnson entered city hall.

Nearly a month after the polls closed, it is still an extraordinary thought that London, of all places, is to be represented in the eyes of the world by a man like Johnson.

The Tory MP from Henley (outside London) first won notoriety as a right wing columnist and sometime TV quiz show guest: a bumbling parody of a right-wing upper class twit. His extramarital affairs also attracted publicity, and he was removed from the Tory front bench.

As a pundit, he struck a brusquely Thatcherite and neo-con pose. In 2005, he described Africans as “pickanninies” and called for the re-colonisation of the continent. He applauded George Bush and the Iraq war. He opposed the Kyoto Agreement and dismissed the threat of climate change. He routinely evoked social stereotypes, casually insulting the entire populations of Liverpool and Portsmouth, among others. After a bombing atrocity, he declared that “Islam is the problem” (there are more than 700,000 Muslims in London).

In the post-modern climate, it was sometimes hard to know how seriously anyone was supposed to take Johnson’s views. But as a Conservative party candidate for the Mayor of London, Johnson could no longer shelter behind the columnist’s lazy excuses, and he waged a careful and mostly dignified campaign, distancing himself from many of his earlier remarks. His central thrust was “against crime”, with the populist touch of replacing the new elongated, uncomfortable “bendy buses” with much loved double decker Routemasters.

And of course he inveighed against the “political correctness” of the incumbent Livingstone regime, including its links with the Chavez government in Venezuela (which benefited poorer east Londoners with cheap fuel).

Ken Livingstone first came to prominence in the early 80s as the left wing Labour leader of the Greater London Council. Here he spearheaded a progressive programme which became a flagship of resistance to Thatcher – so much so that she abolished the Council in 1985, leaving Londoners without any form of representative London-wide government.

Responding to long pent-up demand, Labour re-introduced a modified form of London government in 2000: an elected Mayor and Assembly were to enjoy carefully restricted powers (education, housing and much else was left in the hands of the 32 London boroughs) and a limited tax base. Barred by Tony Blair from standing as the Labour candidate for the newly created Mayoralty, Livingstone ran as an independent and won a historic victory.

In office, he soon made it up with the Labour party, and he and Blair and then Brown learned to live with each other. In 2004, he was re-elected as mayor, this time as the as official Labour candidate.

His major achievement was the introduction of the congestion charge for central London, an effective environmental policy and the first social democratic innovation in this country for more than a generation. He opposed the war on Iraq – and in doing so faithfully represented the view of a majority of Londoners. He denounced Islamophobia and continued to be associated with the rights of ethnic minorities. But he also gave strident support to the heavy handed police tactics that led to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 and the near killing of two others in Forest Gate in 2006. When a London jury found the Metropolitan police guilty of health and safety violations in the course of the de Menezes incident, Livingstone condemned them for exposing London to terrorist attacks.

Socialist rhetoric was reserved for left wing audiences. In practise, his economic policies were dictated by big business and the banks; his sole strategy for London was to compete with other cities to attract multi-national capital. Hence the vast sums poured into the Olympic project, which Livingstone championed. He opposed proposals for a modest tax on non-domiciled millionaires who spend months of the year in London.

As time went on his regime became identified with croneyism and petty corruption. Not all the allegations were groundless. Livingstone certainly ran a closed shop, surrounded by a coterie dedicated to protecting his personal position, and he and they sometimes displayed a very casual approach to the prerogatives of power.

The London election was heavily publicised as a personality contest though both candidates were muted during the campaign. Livingstone, in particular, was lacklustre, relying on his proven competence as incumbent and presenting himself as a safe pair of hands against Johnson’s gaffe-prone naivete. But the the campaign was given lurid fire by the extraordinary intervention of London’s main daily newspaper, The Evening Standard, which waged a ferocious assault on Livingstone. Across the city, the Standard’s familiar hoardings blazoned headlines linking Livingstone to corruption or terrorism or crime.

In the end, Johnson picked up 42 per cent of the first preference votes, against Livingstone’s 36%. After the 2nd preference votes were distributed, Johnson was elected with 53%. While Livingstone’s vote held nearly steady from 2004, the Tory vote was up by more than 14%. Turn outs were higher in Johnson supporting areas in outer London than in Livingstone supporting areas in inner London.

Still, Livingstone fared better in London than Labour did nationally, where it was reduced to third place with 24% of the vote, its worst local election result in forty years. The full story behind this must wait for another column. Suffice it to say that New Labour’s contempt for its core constituencies – crystallised around the abolition of a special lower tax band for people on low incomes – has come home to roost. Across the country, working class voters deserted Labour in record numbers.

It was Labour’s performance in national government that was Livingstone’s greatest handicap in London. Here, the working class revolt against Labour was restricted to the white working class, but it destroyed Livingstone’s chances. These people had benefited little from either Labour nationally or Livingstone locally. They didn’t even get the benefit of the political gestures.

Undoubtedly, part of Johnson’s triumph rested on a veiled appeal to racism and xenophobia. This was confirmed by the alarming success in the London elections of the far right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim British National Party.

In the vote for mayor, Johnson received the second preferences of nearly all of the 70,000 who voted first for the BNP candidate. In addition, some 128,000 mainly Johnson supporters gave the BNP their second preferences.

Most disturbingly, the BNP secured 130,000 votes – 5.3% – in the city wide top-up vote for the London Assembly, and under the proportional representation system won a seat there for the first time. The Green Party, with 8.3% of the vote, won two seats, and the rest were divided between Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats. Since the Tories are two short of a majority the BNP member could play a significant role, though at the moment he is being shunned.

So one of the world’s most successfully multicultural cities stands naked. In a climate of looming economic crisis, fear, scapegoating and bigotry fuelled the vote for the BNP and for Johnson. People who have been left out by London’s economic boom turn their resentments on their fellow Londoners, who in fact share their frustrations. Now that boom, sustained by cheap credit and high property prices, is ending. Gross inequalities created during the years of wealth have already turned London, for all its marvellous mixing, into a city of parallel universes. As incomes and standards of living are squeezed and jobs are lost, we’ll find out how well we really know each other. Speaking as a Londoner, I’m filled with dismay at the idea of Mayor Johnson, flanked by a BNP assembly member, presiding over this crisis.

When the Conservatives revile “political correctness” they have in mind not merely the gestures associated with Livingstone but any and all claims for equality, any and all resistance to racism. In that respect their celebration of Johnson’s victory as “the end of political correctness in London” is certainly premature.