Being the mayor of a world-class city confers a certain distinction.
French President Jacques Chirac is the former mayor of Paris, and the current mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has his eyes on the Kremlin. New York's Rudolph Giuliani is internationally known for his campaign to improve the city's livability.
But until now, London has never had a mayor. The British capital sprawls over 610 square miles and is split up into 32 separate boroughs that are often given to squabbling with each other. It has no central authority to organize its affairs, and its 8 million inhabitants don't have an authoritative voice to speak for them at the national level.
The small financial district, a single square mile known as "the City," sports an officeholder grandly described as the Lord Mayor of London, the job Dick Whittington - famous in legend for variously heeding the advice of his cat, or "turning again" back to the city at the sound of church bells - sought and won in the 15th century. While the beribboned Lord Mayor annually parades through the streets of London in a horse-drawn carriage, his duties are only ceremonial and he is not democratically elected.
That's going to change after an election next May, and there is already a field of contenders, including a millionaire author, a Hollywood actress, and a left-wing socialist known for his pet newt collection.
Need for a mayor?
Not everyone is jumping for joy at the prospect of a mayor. Tom Freeman, an insurance executive, forecasts that "the first thing a mayor will do is put up taxes." He adds, "London has survived for centuries without a mayor, and we haven't done too badly."
Others, however, see a distinct bonus in having someone to tackle problems citywide.
Muriel Stevens, a teacher who commutes daily on the London Underground subway system, says, "At rush hour the Tube is a nightmare on wheels. We all complain, but nobody's listening.
"A mayor could achieve a lot, too, in the battle against street crime. Now, when police in one borough get cracking, the criminals just move to another district."
Bestselling thriller writer, Jeffrey Archer, is favored to win the Conservative Party's primary vote Oct. 1. Lord Archer, who is also a former deputy chairman of the party, says as mayor he would "take a leaf out of Rudy Giuliani's book" and issue municipal bonds to fund improvements on the Underground, parts of which date back to 1863.
The Labour Party race is much less clear. Actress Glenda Jackson, now a Labour member of Parliament, says she wants the nomination. So, too does Trevor Phillips, a black broadcaster who claims he would draw support from London's estimated 1 million nonwhite voters.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has sworn to block the candidacy of the most popular Labour hopeful.
Member of Parliament Ken Livingstone is known for his newt collection - "They're very friendly creatures" he has said - and gay rights campaigning. He also represents a socialist left wing of the party seen by the centrist Mr. Blair as a throwback to the days when Labour was associated with efforts to ban nuclear weapons, quit Europe, and raise taxes on the rich.
Attempts to ensure that Mr. Livingstone will toe the party line on policies designed to attract middle-class voters led him to label Blair "a control freak."
Still, Livingstone maintains he is bound to win the nomination. "Every contact I have made inside Labour suggests I will be allowed to stand," he told the press. "I will not be weeded out."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society