London voted for its mayor last week and voted, narrowly, for Boris. Boris Johnson was the Conservative incumbent, a 47-year-old upper-middle class, Eton- and Oxford-educated former journalist, a classics-conversant, high-IQ prankster with a streak of political intelligence and ruthlessness that reportedly has Prime Minister David Cameron worried for his job.
Boris beat Ken (Livingstone). In London, the two main contenders for the mayor’s seat are known, with or without affection, as Boris and Ken, perhaps a reflection of the fact that they are seen, still, as not quite serious people. (The London mayoralty doesn’t have much power, and nothing like that enjoyed by Michael Bloomberg in New York, who isn’t universally called Michael.) Indeed, they are not seen as entirely serious by themselves. Both have deserved reputations as comedians. Ken used to appear on comedy quiz panels, Boris wrote witty columns for the Daily Telegraph.
Ken Livingstone is a 66-year-old Labour veteran, a working-class-born ideologue of the left, by far the most experienced figure in London politics. He ran the Greater London Council from 1981 till its abolition in 1986 and held the mayoral seat from its creation in 2000, for two terms, until 2008 – when, with Labour’s stock diving, he was beaten by Boris. Experience didn’t count enough this time, though. Everywhere else in the UK, the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies in government were pounded, losing hundreds of local government seats. Labour surged back. Except in the capital.
Even allowing for election hype, London is one of the world’s great cities, though great cities have great problems. But before we come to its deficiencies, it should be said that London is beautiful in parts, and it has no peer in England. It’s the political, financial and media center of the country. It has the fifth-largest city-GDP in the world, with an estimated $565 billion in 2008, a sliver ahead of Paris, behind Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. As Britain stagnates in a double-dip recession, the London Chamber of Commerce says its city is beginning to boom.
And it has the Olympics, coming on July 27. The new mayor won’t have a honeymoon – political leaders in European states don’t get honeymoons anymore, life is too uncertain and frightening for that – but the Olympics will serve as a global stage upon which to celebrate a large part of Boris’s (second) first hundred days. The event will mask the sheer difficulty of forcing change in places as complex, as full of well-protected groups with so many overlapping layers of democratic and appointed authorities, as is London.