Let’s have a mayor of London, not a constant campaign

Election fatigue doesn’t even come close. When London goes to the polls to choose its next mayor on May 3 it will be the culmination of a few weeks of official campaigning on the parts of Boris, Ken and the rest.

But in reality, the last month or so has been but the final lap in a marathon lasting more than three years.

We’ve known since March 2009 that Ken Livingstone intended to mount a challenge to Boris Johnson, either as Labour’s official candidate or as an independent. The following May, Oona King threw her hat into the ring, and by September 2010 – almost 20 months before the vote – it was clear we had another round of Ken versus Boris on our hands.

In other words, Boris was at City Hall for a paltry 10 months before the race to succeed him kicked off. He’d barely had time to find the stationary cupboard and learn where the best toilets were before he was forced back into election mode.

And what have we learnt in that time? That the two main challengers don’t get on much (and probably should avoid sharing lifts in the future)? That one is the mayor for the rich, and the other is in the grasp of the unions? That it is always someone else’s fault that the tubes don’t run on time and that fares are so outrageously expensive? Or that one earns vast sums from his writing and another has complex tax arrangements?

Did we really need in excess of three years – more months than there are London boroughs – to be told that our options for 2012 are exactly the same as they were four years ago?

In Britain we like to pat ourselves on the back for having such an obviously more sensible electoral system than our stateside cousins. We snigger as US presidential hopefuls spend obscene sums on attack adverts and kiss myriad babies in the hopes of convincing every vacillating voter in every primary or caucus from coast to coast to back them – and that’s just against members of their own party.

We pride ourselves on a political structure that doesn’t put its parliamentarians up for re-election every two years, as is the case for US congressmen and women. We spend less in this country to keep our democracy going than they do, we don’t rely so heavily on stunts and photo opportunities, and we set far stricter limits on funding (contrary to what recent revelations about donor dinners would have you believe).

Yet if the 2012 London mayoral race is anything to go by, we have nothing to brag about. And if the rest of the country follows suit and opts for directly-elected mayors, will we be doomed to an eternal election cycle, up and down Britain?

In Birmingham, the in-fighting among the Labour hopefuls for a role that is only theoretical at this stage, suggests the answer is yes.

I am on record stating that I cannot support Ken Livingstone, despite aligning myself with the Labour Party in the past, not least because I still don’t think he understands the concerns of London’s Jewish community. But, frankly, the never-ending campaign has made me reluctant to back any of his rivals.

I want a mayor for London, not a constant candidate for whom the mayoralty represents only a brief window between one race and the next.

It’s too late to change anything this time. But it would be wonderful for whoever wins next month to be able to spend the next four years concentrating on running London, not running for London.

Gossip Girl recap: Salon of the Dead

Serena Van der Woodsen is many things – sister; friend; brother-lover; walking blonde-joke punchline; advert for how not to wear appropriate attire, ever – but she’s not known for being malicious. Or at least, she never has been during Gossip Girl’s colourful history.

But there she was, this week, doing her best to torpedo new it-girl Lola’s burgeoning showbiz career, not to mention ruin a party hosted by her supposed BFF in the whole wide world.

And then she had the nerve to get mad at Lola, for outing the fact the La Fembot is actually Mommy Dearest (and Nate’s former bedroom buddy). And to ask Lola to keep shtum about her Gossiping ways, to avoid her reputation (Ha, as if Serena still has one of those) being tarnished forever.

The problem with Gossip Girl this season is that it has lost sight of who the characters are. Serena works best when she is inadvertently – but never intentionally – stupid and hurtful, when she is caught up in her emotions and blind to the idiocy of her behaviour.

I’d believe it (in the sense that one should never accept anything on Gossip Girl as remotely plausible) if any one of the other girls on this show had opted to wield the laptop of power and hold it hostage from the real Gossip Girl – but not Serena. Blair, Little J, Vanessa all have it in them – they’ve all had a taste of power and enjoyed it. Serena, not so much.

It’s not just Serena, though. The writers seem to have reinvented their characters this year, and while I’m all for the gang growing up (hello, these crazy kids have now reached the grand old milestone of being above the legal drinking age – major maturity!), it’s too much.

Gossip Girl needs to get back to its roots. Blair is a schemer – as an adult her schemes should be more complicated and intricate, and the consequences should be worse – but after months of her kowtowing to Prince not-so-Charming, it’s time for her to regain her place on the steps. So instead of feuding with Dan about Brooklyn’s merits, she should have conspired to have him turn up at the hottest party of the year, trussed up like the escort she wants him to be.

And Nate? It was never plausible to have him in a seat of power, but while it was all part of Grandpa Archibald’s plan, it sorta worked. But why is he still being portrayed as a media mogul? Nate is at his best when having inappropriate flings with older women, getting high while the world around him erupts into crisis or flashing his dimples to get him out of any awkward fix. He should be in a fraternity house right now, engaged in hi-jinks to steal the rival house’s pet hedgehog, or something, not playing Murdoch to La Hurley’s Rebekah.

As for Dan; I never thought I’d say this, but bring back Little J and Vanessa. At least they have identifiable personalities, and at least their hair has the decency to be fake. Without them as a buffer, and a reminder that life is gosh darn tough when you hail from the wrong side of the Brooklyn Bridge, Dan is just another suited and booted piece of arm candy. Let’s have him working as the ice cool undercover reporter he thinks he is and getting into scrapes with devious drug dealers and dastardly crime kingpins, not fawning over a girl who made his life miserable for years and still doesn’t feel bad about it. He’s no longer a rebel and he no longer has a cause – even house-trained Rufus has apparently worked out that that’s not OK.

In fact, the only character who keeps it interesting anymore is Chuck, who delivered one of the greatest lines in Gossip Girl history this week as he slammed his newfound mother for her general awfulness. If he can find a way to publicly humiliate her and seize control of her media empire, all the while wearing an awesome cravat or somesuch, I might forgive some of the crud that has passed for storylines this series.

Siobhan Benita should be given the chance to talk to London’s voters

Imagine this: the new kid in class asks to audition for the school play. “You can’t,” the teacher responds, “You weren’t in it last year.”

“But I wasn’t at this school then,” explains the child, only to be told: “Tough luck.”

Absurd, you might say. But it sums up the situation that Siobhan Benita is in.

Benita, if you didn’t know, is an independent London mayoral candidate; a former civil servant who decided to stop talking politics and start taking action. But I say “if you didn’t know”, because you probably don’t. As an independent, with no track record and no party behind her, she has not been offered the same platform to express herself as her opponents.

At the Evening Standard’s debate on Wednesday, four candidates – who might reasonably be termed the usual suspects in London mayoral politics – were offered the chance to debate, snipe and put across their vision for the capital. Benita, sitting in the front row, was not – a fact I consider nothing short of outrageous.

Not all her rivals were given a chance – the BNP and UKIP candidates weren’t invited to Newsnight or to other debates – but their party electoral histories mean their track records can be examined and their chances discounted accordingly.

Given the microphone to ask an audience question, Benita calmly challenged the quartet to accept her in the debate. They all agreed in principle, and her presence would have cost nothing, yet she remained barred from the podium.

If this is what democracy looks like, then all I can say is I’ve been sold a lie. Given that our system allows for independents to stand, it is baffling that they are not then given the same opportunity to convince. Over and over the public gets to hear from the same four people, saying the same things and making the same jibes. Yet a new face is persona non grata.

Campaigning is not only about official status; political history is filled with examples of upstarts rising from nowhere to claim the prize. But it’s hard to imagine a candidate in the personality-centric arena of London’s City Hall politics making a lasting impression on voters without strong name recognition.

Barring Benita – or any other independent – from the platform reduces the ability to tell voters there is an alternative. The tuned-in, those who use Twitter and discuss the issues endlessly, know she’s out there. Those who engage only at the sidelines won’t have a clue.

As it happens, Benita is an interesting candidate, with intriguing ideas about youth provision and a vision for her city. She wants to keep tubes running later on weekends, find new uses for derelict buildings and hold back the spate of library closures – ideas that could benefit from further scrutiny. Still, despite better odds than Jenny Jones or even Brian Paddick, she probably has no chance; who can stop the Boris or Ken juggernaut?

But that’s not the point. How can voters dismiss someone when they have not been given a fair chance to see what it is they are rejecting? Elections are about more than frontrunners; they are about giving all those in the running a chance to shape the debate. Contrast this closed attitude with the Republican primaries, where every pretender is given some chance to shine.

When it comes to Benita, as a disillusioned Labour supporter with a vote going spare, I like what I see. It’s wrong not to open up the race and let others have a proper look. She should be allowed her time in the limelight.