Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Seeing red in London's mayoral contest

I cried when Ken Livingstone lost the 2008 election to Boris Johnson to become Mayor of London. Yes, I know. I'm a silly, soppy thing who takes politics far too seriously. I have soft spot for the old warhorse, and I'd been canvassing all day. I'd had a few bottles of wine, and it was late. Ken Livingstone's valedictory address was heartfelt, and he was clearly gutted. And surely politically-savvy Londoners would see through the vagaries of The Blonde and re-elect Red Ken, the man who had remade London politics, with a landslide. Wouldn't they?

That was over three years ago. I've given up active politics since then, mainly because I couldn't do anything but feel guilty when looking at bundles of leaflets that needed delivering to nearby streets. I don't feel so guilty any more though. London's politics has changed – and elections are no longer fought and won in the hole of the 'doughnut' that is inner London boroughs. With credit to Ken, the centre ground of London's politics – a micro state within the UK – did shift westward. Even the Telegraph has called Ken the most successful left-winger of modern times. As a result, massive investment in public transport, the congestion charge and a commitment to police numbers have all been written into the rulebook for London's mayor.

Boris knows these truths, and in spite of the blustering demeanour is no fool. He is surrounded by smart people at City Hall; strategists, specialists, communicators. As Conservatives, they have realised how valuable City Hall is as a power base and they are not prepared to throw it away, despite the historic antagonism towards London local government under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Much has been made of the personal similarities between Boris and Ken – the mavericks acting outside the party mainstream, even their occasionally racy private lives. Boris isn't on the same page as David Cameron. Ken's rarely read from the same book as the Labour leadership. But both claim to be standing up for the People's Republic of London in their own way.

The New Bus for London – or the new Routemaster -is a big bold, physical manifestation of Boris making his mark on London. But Ken was right to scrap the original Routemaster, as I've argued before. He was right also to introduce the unfairly maligned bendy buses, which seem to operate in many of Europe's other cities without any trouble at all.

Boris and his team have been entirely wrong to scrap bendy buses, which have been well suited to the job expected of them. Preferring to listen to ill-informed advice on what might win him the election (it worked, but his advisors know nothing about running transport) we’ve seen chaos outside places like Waterloo and Victoria stations, where there are either too many replacement double-deckerscausing congestion at the terminus, or smaller buses which leave large numbers behind. Here's the evidence:

Enormous queues build up at Waterloo station every morning waiting for the 521 bus - down the stairs, double-backing several times and causing huge congestion like some sort of low-budget British horror film
Bendy buses on the route I use most often just vaccumed up queues and never left anyone behind. And, as for the urban myth that they're more dangerous to cyclists – well, not a shred of evidence could be provided to support that theory.

I’d personally like to see the return of the bendy bus, and for politicians to leave decisions over what sort of buses should be on our streets to the professionals, rather than getting stuck in a 1950s timewarp about ‘new' Routemasters. Yes, that's right – a bus based on a open rear entrance design that dates back to at least the 1920s, but built in 2011. It will leave TfL and the London bus companies open to lawsuits. But Boris powers on with his pet project, which although is undeniably pretty as buses go, is still unnecessary and expensive in an age of supposed austerity and budget cuts. The first is due in trial service in the new year.

Artists' impression of the imaginatively titled Emirates Air Line
Then there's the Thames Cable Car. Who remembers Londoners asking for this? It would have been expected that any incoming or re-elected mayor would have supported a new bridge in that part of London, easing the pressure on the Blackwall Tunnel and the Limehouse Link. It wasn't however, part of either Boris', or for that matter, Ken's manifesto and has managed to spectacularly overtake other long-hoped for projects such as the Cross-River Tram or Crystal Palace Tram extension, or the DLR's Dagenham Dock extension. The Emirates Air Line, as it will be called, has even sneaked on to the tube map. Like the new Routemaster, it's shiny and glossy and looks great in the run-up to a Mayoral election. But do we actually need it?

Non-Londoners may wonder why all this is of consequence. But what happens in London next year will undoubtedly have an impact on UK politics come the next general election in 2015, or sooner. Ken Livingstone has been busy attacking Boris on police numbers, for example. Boris sounds less combative towards his opponent and has grown in confidence significantly since taking on the job. He's even using similar language and the posturing of his opponent. Meanwhile, Ken really needs to learn the lessons of 2008 - and some have doubted whether he really can - if he is to wrest back control of the capital. There's even been muttering that he may be deposed as Labour's candidate. Either way, 2012's going to be an interesting year in London.

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