London Mayoral Race Likely to be U.S.-Style Personality Contest

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

London ( - Britain's ruling Labor party faces a divisive campaign for the election of London's first mayor, following Monday's announcement by a maverick left-wing Labor lawmaker that he will run as an independent in the race.

The campaign could be Britain's first U.S.-style race in which personality takes precedence, observers suggested after the popular Ken Livingstone said he would run for office.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has thrown his support behind the party's official candidate -- former health secretary Frank Dobson -- said Livingstone would be a "disastrous" mayor.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrats are each fielding a candidate. Conservative hopeful Steve Norris, a former transport minister, said he now expected the Labor vote to be split, and the real race to be between Livingstone and himself.

London's first directly-elected mayor will hold one of the most powerful political positions in the country. Responsibilities will include policing, emergency services, public transport, culture, environment, economic development and strategic planning.

Livingstone and his supporters accused the Labor party of "ballot rigging" during a nomination process two weeks ago, which took the form of an electoral college rather than a vote by the party's 50,000 members in the capital.

Narrowly defeated, Livingstone refused to accept the result and called on his rival to stand down. After a fortnight of weighing up his options - and considering results of a poll in which 61 percent of Londoners said he should stand as an independent - Livingstone shared his decision with the London Evening Standard.

"I have been forced to choose between the party I love and upholding the democratic rights of Londoners," he said in an interview published Monday.

"I have concluded that defense of the principle of London's right to govern itself requires
that I stand as an independent candidate for London mayor on 4 May."

Apart from candidates' personalities, the single biggest issue for Londoners is likely to be transport, including the state of the underground railway network and traffic congestion.

Others are crime and employment. Dobson has accused Livingstone of being soft on crime, charging that he enjoys the support of socialist groups antagonistic toward the police.

Ben Marshall of the MORI polling company said Monday the personality of the candidates was likely to be more important in the mayoral campaign than in national elections.

From focus group surveying on the issue, he told, it appeared "people are a little more willing to play the field ... the party label perhaps has less currency in local elections than in national ones."

A tendency of disenchantment with politics and politicians would probably favor Livingstone, Marshall said. In surveys on various scenarios late last year, Livingstone was consistently the first preference, standing against any candidate.

"One factor Ken has is that he is seen not to be above politics, but not part of the political system. That may make him more attractive."

Dobson, the official Labor man, was by contrast seen as relatively un-independent.

"If you ask people: 'What's the first thing you think of when you think of Dobson?' they'd probably say: 'He's Blair's puppet, or a stooge'," he said.

Marshall said a high turnout in London - a strongly Labor area - would benefit Labor versus the Conservatives, although Livingstone's candidacy may split the Labor vote.

"With Livingstone standing, the turnout is likely to be higher. If he hadn't stood, people may have thought: 'This is clearly a stitch-up. We don't like any of the candidates. Why should we bother voting?' "

Nicknamed "Red Ken," Livingstone was a leader of the left-leaning Greater London Council in the 1980s, and gained a reputation for the type of "loony left" policies observers said made Labor unelectable for decades.

Blair's makeover of "New Labor" brought a landslide victory in 1997, but left many left-wing ideologues frustrated. It is this "Old Labor" residue Blair has been trying to control and sideline, usually successfully.

It remains to be seen whether the Livingstone factor sorely embarrasses Blair.

"For six years the one thing Tony Blair said he could do was control that dangerous left-wing monster called the Labor Party," Conservative leader William Hague said recently. "Six weeks into the new year and it's that dangerous left-wing monster called the Labor Party that's controlling him. He's suffered the ultimate humiliation: the control freak who's lost control."

But Labor has not been alone in losing face over the London mayoral race.

The Conservative Party dumped its first candidate, the wealthy and flamboyant novelist Jeffrey Archer, after it emerged he had asked a friend to commit perjury in a libel case Archer brought 10 years ago against a supermarket tabloid, which linked him to a prostitute.

Next, the party presented Norris, only to withdraw him because of concerns about what he admitted was a "colorful" private life, including having had five mistresses. Three days later, the party asked him to stand again for lack on a suitable alternative.

Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer has attracted some attention with her "Kramer vs. Who?" campaign, in which she asked voters how they could trust the major parties to run London if they could not even sort out which candidates to field.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow