London, 2012. It’s Olympic year, and east London is sprouting anew, and our city feels like the capital of the world. And on this mighty, epoch-making canvas, two political heavyweights do battle. In the blue corner, Boris Johnson, the incumbent, and perhaps the most recognisable politician in the land. In the red, Ken Livingstone, his predecessor and opposite in almost every way, except for the reputation for shagging.
He’s a little tarnished by now, Ken, true, a little old, a little Jew-hatey and yesterday-ish, but he still stands for something that Boris does not. His is a fiercely multicultural London, a little dirty, perhaps, but vibrant and arty, too; a bubbling pot of culture and faux-socialism (fauxialism?) into which the suburbs slink each morning, warily, to earn all the money. Boris’s, by contrast, is a place of leafy suburbs, and inner-city glass and steel. His ethos, if he has one, is that the higher that glass and steel stretch, the more the grassy foothills will be borne skywards, too.
It is a clash of world-views, of rival visions for the urban experience itself, by two men who only need one name each. The rivalry is personal, too; they loathe each other and squabble in lifts. For the previous four years, indeed, Ken has been Boris’s personal troll, frequently lurking, and heckling, in City Hall. London loves the drama; everybody has a view. And then the polls open, in this mighty metropolis at the centre of the world. And only about a third of us can really be arsed.
In May, London sees another conflict, this time between whatsisface and whatsisname. What turnout do you foresee for Sadiq vs Zac? What, indeed, will we even be voting about? I mean this as no great slur on either, because both to my mind seem relatively sane. Only I can’t figure out for the life of me what difference it makes if we get one or the other.
Sadiq Khan tells us that he will concentrate on housing. Zac Goldsmith will also concentrate on housing. Zac Goldsmith is against a third runway at Heathrow, and so is Sadiq Khan, and in the end neither of them have the power to build one or stop one anyway. Both are very concerned about pollution and want to plant more trees. Zac wants the Tube to run at night. Sadiq also wants the Tube to run at night. Zac reckons there mustn’t be any more strikes. So does Sadiq, albeit from a different direction, which is probably a terribly important distinction if you’re a tube driver, which you almost certainly aren’t.
More policies will emerge in time, I suppose, but expect nothing sweeping, not least because a London mayor can’t do much that is sweeping, even if the electorate would vote for it. At the time of writing, the only major difference (as in, something they actually disagree on, rather than something that one of them has simply thought of first) seems to be that Sadiq has promised a ‘living rent’ cap on new-build properties, which might provide a vast amount of more affordable housing or, more likely, would provide a tiny amount of it and a sweeping legalistic nightmare but would make us all feel like better people. Still, it might be enough to give him the edge.
Time and time again I’ve heard that London’s mayoral election will be a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour. This to me seems unlikely, because the subsection of the electorate who simultaneously a) have noticed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, and b) don’t realise that Sadiq Khan has nothing to do with it, must be infinitesimally small. In fact, London will simply vote on which of these chaps it wants to be mayor. Or rather, in vast part, probably won’t.
It doesn’t help that with a year left in the job, Boris sloped off back to Parliament, clearly bored out of his mind. And it certainly doesn’t help that, for all of their myriad differences, Boris’s London has been more of a continuation of Ken’s than a departure from it. Paradoxically, devolution has been brilliant for this city, bringing in money and clarity and Crossrail and bike routes, as well as an ever-burgeoning sense of civic identity that had badly ebbed in the hiatus between the GLC and the GLA. Only for all that, within the parameters of the sane, it doesn’t seem to make all that much difference who actually does the job. Hence the way that three months from now, hardly anybody is going to give a toss. You’ll see.
Wit of Wogan
I met the late, great Sir Terry Wogan a couple of times. Most recently was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival a couple of years ago, where I was interviewing him and Sebastian Faulks about their shared love of P.G. Wodehouse. After the gig, there was a book signing. And at this signing, by some terrible administrative error, or perhaps by virtue of not really listening, I ended up sitting between them. Wogan to the right of me, Faulks to the left. The queue went out the door. The crowds surged up. Many, many books flew from that table. But not mine. Never mine.
I gave up after about 20 minutes and skulked away. Just before I went, though, Sir Terry placed a kindly hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t feel bad,’ he said. ‘The same thing once happened to me.’
‘Oh gosh,’ I said, brimming with gratitude. ‘Did it really?’
‘No,’ he said.