London (CNSNews.com) - They may live in one of the world's most important political and business centers, but Londoners this week will elect a mayor after a campaign that many have found difficult to take seriously.
The winner of the race to become the capital's first directly-elected mayor - part of Prime Minister Tony Blair's policy of devolving power to Britain's regions - will be responsible for major decisions affecting the lives of its eight million inhabitants.
Voters will have to choose between an independent left-winger who has vowed not to allow the World Trade Organization to meet in London; a Labor candidate whose beard - should he shave it off? - has been the subject of much discussion; and a Conservative whose colorful social life and off-message views on social issues have upset many in his own party.
There are other candidates running, but they are so far back they have been all but ignored.
Way ahead of the pack, according to opinion polls, is charismatic Ken Livingstone, who was booted out of the Labor party in March after he broke his word not to run as an independent against the party's official candidate, former health secretary Frank Dobson.
Dubbed "Red Ken" by Britain's feisty tabloids over his left-wing views, 54-year-old Livingstone is such a clear favorite that a major betting agency has stopped taking bets on the race. Recent polls have him garnering over 50 percent of the vote, with his nearest opponent well short of 20 percent.
Livingstone has been a maverick for years, and he believes this is the reason for his popularity. He was supportive of homosexual rights before it became a fashionable cause, and he backed the Irish Republican Army long before it declared a ceasefire in Northern Ireland.
"What Britain has done for the Irish nation is, although it is spread over 800 years, worse than what Hitler did to the Jews," he said in a controversial remark in 1983.
Livingstone was head of the Greater London Council, the city's last metropolitan government, before former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher scrapped it in the 1980s. He won widespread support by attempting to cut subway and bus fares, a move opposed by the government and courts.
Possibly most controversial are Livingstone's views on global capital.
"Hitler's war cost 30 million lives over six years, but the IMF, the World Bank and the Western banking system do that every two years," he was quoted as saying in 1992. "Our financial institutions have become the greatest instruments for the slaughter of humans ever devised... I think they [bankers] should die painfully in their beds for what they do."
Last month he added the WTO to the list, telling a magazine: "The IMF and World Bank are still appalling and now the World Trade Organization too ... Every year the international financial system kills more people than World War Two. But at least Hitler was mad, you know?"
The Conservative Party's spokesman on London, Bernard Jenkin, warned in a weekend statement of Livingstone's sympathy with "direct action," a euphemism for street protests.
"If elected, Livingstone will make London the riot capital of the developed world. Livingstone's anti-capitalism would destroy the capital and destroy the prosperity of the greatest city in the world."
Londoners awoke Tuesday to read that a leading member of Livingstone's campaign had resigned, echoing Blair's earlier warning that Livingstone would be a "disaster" for London.
"In front of the cameras he is the consummate politician - take them away and he can be a loose cannon. My trust in him has fallen away. He seems to care only for himself," Mark Goddard, Livingstone's former personnel manager, wrote in The Times.
Goddard said 20 of Livingstone's original 35-member team could no longer be relied upon to campaign for the candidate. Any attempts to discuss policy were met with repeated insistence that the only important thing was getting Livingstone elected, he charged.
The Conservative Party is in trouble too.
Its candidate, Steven Norris, has disturbed some conservatives because of his attempts to distance himself from the party line on social issues.
He suggested police should turn a blind eye to homosexual activity in public places, and refused to support the Conservative position in favor of retaining Section 28, a legal clause that makes it illegal for local councils to promote homosexuality.
Norris also admits he's had five mistresses over the years, a fact that has not endeared him to pro-family groups. He recently married the mother of their two-year old son.
He was only selected as candidate after the party's first choice, novelist Jeffrey Archer, stood down in the midst of scandal. Archer admitted he had asked a friend to commit perjury in a libel trial a decade ago.
On Tuesday, the wives of two senior Conservative peers wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph calling on party supporters to vote against Norris.
Urging voters to consider "their own values and priorities," they recommended support for a minor candidate with strong Christian principles, \plain\lang2057\f2\fs23\cf0 Ram Gidoomal, who is standing on a pro-family platform.
In reaction, Norris told a radio program: "The party expects its members to vote for its candidate. The chairman [Michael Ancram] has made that quite clear."
See earlier story:
London Mayoral Race Likely to be U.S.-Style Personality Contest (Mar 6, 2000)