London Elections are a cautionary tale for prospective Middle East democracies
Despite the best efforts of the other candidates, and a supplementary voting system which is intended to encourage conciliatory campaigning, the 2012 elections have developed into little more than direct confrontation between Johnson (the current incumbent) and Livingstone (Mayor from 2000 to 2008), with open hostility often breaking out between the two leading candidates.
A fractious campaign became decidedly acrimonious in early April when an infuriated Johnson called Livingstone a “liar” during an on-air radio debate. The tensions between the two had been mounting for some time, with Livingstone scoring political points by exposing the large salary paid to Johnson, while in office, for a newspaper column. Johnson retaliated with accusations of Livingstone’s shady tax record—an issue which rumbles on.This year’s London elections can be considered more of a political sideshow than a barometer
Quite apart from the personal rivalry that has developed between the two politicians, the London Mayoral elections have become something of a political barometer for the rest of the UK—at least that is how London based political analysts frequently attempt to portray the campaign every four years. Inevitably it is depicted as a Conservative versus Labour battleground, and to some extent this is a helpful prism through which to view the contest. Johnson, with his background at Eton and Oxford University as a contemporary of David Cameron, evokes much of the establishment values of the Conservative Party—a former MP, he is often tipped as a future Tory prime minister. While Livingstone evokes in equal measure something of the Old Left: he earned his reputation in the eighties as leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) and was a frequent thorn in the side of Margaret Thatcher’s government.
But under more intimate scrutiny, this year’s London elections can be considered more of a political sideshow than a barometer, as the overbearing personalities of Johnson and Livingstone dominate proceedings. Johnson—or BoJo as he is affectionately known—is the flamboyant blonde-coiffed self-styled buffoon who deliberately harks back to a forgotten era of Wodehousian innocence, while Livingstone—often dubbed Red Ken—is a gnarled political veteran who, one senses, would be perfectly at peace handing out the Morning Star in the drizzle at King’s Cross.
A recent poll showed that Johnson, the current favorite to win, is more popular than the Conservative Party, while Livingstone, who trails in the polls, is less popular with the voters than his own party. This statistic suggests that the wider party-political implications of the vote are limited, as well as some other knock-on effects. Campaign material for the Labour party avoids mentioning Livingstone wherever possible—indeed, he has a mixed history with the party after standing (and winning) the Mayoral elections as an independent in 2000, causing some to suspect he is a minor embarrassment to the party. Meanwhile, Johnson’s rising stock as a popular Tory has led to suggestions that leading Conservatives are keen that he remain in local politics, for fear that he may challenge for a second parliamentary career and possible party leadership.
It seems the main parties are engaged in equally cynical attempts to hijack the local election processes for their own ends: in turn, choosing an ill-loved candidate for the sake of winning, and running an internal party threat to keep him out of the way. But this is what we have come to expect from our ‘Western’ democracies. It is rare that any election is contested on merit by candidates judged on their relative strengths, as opposed to loyalty to one political behemoth or another. In London, the Liberal Democrat candidate, Brian Paddick—an experienced and senior ex-police officer—and the Green Party’s Jenny Jones—former Deputy Mayor—are distant contenders in the opinion polls. The sole independent, Siobhan Benita, will probably not even win back her deposit for standing (she needs five percent of the vote).
What lessons then, for the nascent democracies of the Middle East and North Africa? Were politicians and activists from Baghdad to Benghazi to look West to London, they would observe a political climate consumed by apathy bordering on antipathy, and a de-facto two party system. What hope can they glean from a so-called model of democracy, in which the two main contenders are reduced to petty squabbles and an undignified reluctance to engage in metropolitan issues of social housing, transport, education and environmental concerns?
Whoever wins, be it Boris or Ken, their to-do list will be mercifully shorter than those on the desks of their peers in the Arab World. Not for them the innumerable challenges of rebuilding entire nations and instilling a culture of democratic pluralism. Indeed, while men and women die on the streets of Cairo, to ensure their right of self-determination, less than half of those eligible to vote in London will have done so (there was a record 45 percent turnout in 2008). If any positive message at all can be sent from London’s imperfect local elections, it is that Londoners—that most diverse of people—can rejoice in the opportunity to take part in such imperfection. They at liberty to scoff at Boris and laugh at Ken, ignore them completely or fight for their campaign. Londoners may ultimately be faced with a false choice between the blue man and the red man, but in a situation where you have no choice at all, that is something to aspire to.