Voting in the London Mayoral elections is a digression from thinking about sexuality and space, but it is no less linked to thinking about our relation to urban space. In a city of 8.6 million people, the ideology and policy of the government leader is important.
You might have read the blistering article that Nick Cohen wrote in The Spectator about Boris Johnson’s ‘Kenyan’ comments regarding Barack Obama. If you haven’t, check it out. It’s worth a read, and not just because of the bizarre response comments. To me, the article shows how important the role of Mayor of London is, and how that can affect how we are seen by other global political systems.
Boris Johnson is everything I detest in a politician. Having (correctly) deduced that UK politics in the noughties was almost universally neutered of real personality pace a few outspoken outliers like John Prescott, Johnson went about concocting a new one. I say ‘concocting’ because Johnson’s bumbling, friendly, ever-so-human personality is not the real person. He’s a highly intelligent, shrewd politician, and he recognised the appetite amongst the British public for authenticity in political debate in the run up to his successful election – something that was lacking at the time from New Labour figures. As a result, Johnson constructed a personality that has fooled many audiences (I use the word audiences recognising its performative connotations) into believing he has the average Londoner’s best interests at heart. That carefully constructed personality attracted voters, despite London’s history of Labour support, because it is so rare in our contemporary political scenario to see authentic political representation when PR spin and bland interview fodder characterise the main parties.
I have no idea why an MP name recognition survey is not run by a British media outlet, because in all likelihood, the results would be staggering. Buzzfeed(!) would be the perfect mouthpiece for a project like this, because its semi-serious, semi-playful take could make the exercise work, and because its political coverage is getting better and better. Think about it: it’s been a year since the general election in May 2015 but after 12 months in office (theirs, not mine) I still couldn’t tell you who half the cabinet ministers are, let alone the shadow cabinet, and I am someone who really tries to ‘keep up’ with politics (hint: it gets tedious sometimes). When did UK politics become so bereft of interesting, human personalities? John Prescott is memorable to the British public (note ‘memorable’ rather than necessarily ‘liked’) because he was unequivocally a real-life person. Labour cannot seem to see that Boris Johnson and his yet more odious competitor Nigel Farage only thrive because they have each crafted a ‘personality’. I disagree profoundly with both, but people do feel that they have a measure of both politician’s personalities, which is more than can be said for many in the Labour party. It seems politicians’ wariness of being caught out by the (admittedly bloodthirsty) media prevents them from talking in anything other than pre-approved soundbites.
But back to London. Clearly angling for Conservative leader candidacy, Johnson pretty much dialled out of his London-based responsibilities in the past year, apart from some PR updates on the Cycle Superhighways (a mixed bag) and continuing to court luxury housing developments that hinder, rather than help, the capital’s housing crisis, his housing covenant notwithstanding. When local councils, normally best-placed to judge local need, turn down unsuitable developments, Johnson has no qualms in treading on them to turn decisions around – and yet he’s put off the decision on this luxury Shoreditch development to the next Mayor (you can read a précis here and learn about the More Light More Power campaign here). It is disappointing, although not surprising, that Johnson has wound down political engagement with the capital this year, but it is is a disingenuous move for a careerist who has often traded on his ‘love’ for the city.
In his stead, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith and Labour candidate Sadiq Khan have scrapped it out for election as new Mayor of London. Neither campaign seemed particularly enthused in recent months, despite energetic opening salvos from both candidates last autumn. In fact, the main narrative of this spring has been Goldsmith’s seemingly racialised comments in targeted letters to Hindu and Sikh vs. Muslim, Indian and Tamil vs. Pakistani constituents. The Guardian’s take on it seems at times overblown – and presumably inviting Ken Livingstone to be the article interviewee predated his anti-semitic comments, so the editors must have had an awkward Saturday morning – but Simon Hattenstone is right that the election campaign has gotten dirty, and this has a lot to do with a growing rightwing strategy for undermining the rival candidate rather than stating (and restating) the party’s own policy and manifesto and building that momentum through the campaign.
I voted today in a pretty bleak Homerton council estate hall on my street, wondering where the focus on housing and development had gone in both candidates’ campaigns. Hackney, a Labour-run council, has recently returned to building its own council homes, without intermediary housing associations, with persuasive logic – you can a 2014 overview article here. But on a city wide scale, housing needs a step-change away from the Conservative strategy that has left London hamstrung by its own cost of living, for both buying and renting.
We’ll find out late tonight who wins the city, but perhaps a win for for Sadiq Khan, who leads in the closing polls – even for Goldsmith fanboys The Evening Standard! – might galvanise a change to housing policy.