London mayoral race: a contest of eccentrics
Outspoken conservative Boris Johnson leads 'Red' Ken Livingstone in the polls.
Boris Johnson leaps vigorously onto a low wall and raises his hands.Skip to next paragraph
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"Do you like buses?" he bellows. It's an odd question, even for a London mayoral candidate. This is one of the city's most affluent suburbs. The lightly perfumed voters in attendance look more likely to travel by chauffeur-driven Bentley.
"Isn't it great to see so many police here," he tries next, though the lunchtime throng appears no more menacing than a convention of retired gardeners. A low murmur ensues.
Gradually though, Mr. Johnson presses the conservative buttons, launching into a florid rant about scrapping committees, planting trees, punishing bad teenagers, and stopping people drinking alcohol on the subway "in a threatening manner." "I want to make the public space safer," he culminates in that posh English accent of a bygone era.
It's a message that appears to have broad appeal in a city that goes to the polls in two weeks. Despite having made London less congested, more harmonious, and perhaps even more successful during his eight-year tenure, Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone is trailing Johnson in a race pundits say is more about personality than policy.
Mr. Livingstone is forceful too, but his hobby (newts), allegations of cronyism at City Hall, and questions about his private life have not helped.
"It's not really about policy," says Peter Kellner, director of the YouGov polling agency whose surveys consistently put Johnson ahead in the race. "Livingstone could still win this if he can get it back to a debate about London," he says. "But there are two campaigns here – there is the Livingstone character narrative and what's best for London. If it's a referendum on Livingstone's character he'll lose it."
Livingstone points to a strong track record. His congestion fees, boldly introduced in 2003 over the howls of critics, cut traffic and improved travel times in London. His leadership after the July 7 attacks was stoic and dignified. He presided over a buoyant period for London during which the financial center outstripped its rivals, the skyline was redrawn with impressive glassy structures, and the city was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games.
"He took the brave decision to introduce the congestion charge and, albeit with a lot of central government money, he radically improved the bus system in the city," says Tony Travers, an expert on the capital's affairs at the London School of Economics. "He has pursued a particular form of multicultural politics, and London has been a reasonably successful place at accommodating large numbers of incomers."