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.

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.

Kendrick Meek, Ken Livingstone and the Tea Party

All politics is, to some extent, tactical. It would be nice to think campaigns could be run, elections could be won and things got done on the basis of ideology alone.

 But as Nick Clegg could probably point out, power invariably involves settling.

America goes to the polls this week, to choose a third of its senators and all of its congressmen. Two years after Barack “the Messiah” Obama swept into the White House, the Democrats are set for major losses and a likely return to a Republican majority in the House.

This is not actually as bad as it seems; it’s astonishingly rare for the incumbent party to come out of the mid-terms with more seats than they had (when Clinton did in 1998 it was the exception, and more a reaction against Republican machinations than the start of a new political tradition). Still, it’s not great that the Democrats are going to go kaput, especially when you consider that a good number of losses are likely to be at the hands of Tea Party loyalists like Christine the not-so-teenage-witch O ‘Donnell.

Still, given the polls and predictions, it’s surprising to see that efforts to secure a non Tea Party outcome in Florida have failed so miserably – and even more so that a Democrat is the one responsible.

The situation is this; Until a year or so, Governor Charlie Crist was something of a golden boy in the Republican, even tipped as a potential 2012 contender. But his support of such abomination as the stimulus, plus an Obama shaped hug, led to a challenge from the right by Tea Party king Marco Rubio and Crist striking out as an independent.

Mr Rubio is an unreconstructed right-winger, fond of soundbites like this one: “The problem is that when government controls the economy, those who can influence government keep winning, and everybody else just stays the same.”

Paranoid? Him?

Of course, there’s still a Democrat hoping to steal the crown, the wonderfully American named Kendrick Meek (can you imagine, President Meek…it’s like a bad spoof film). Meek is drawing about 15 per cent in the polls, Crist around 35 per cent and spades ahead is Rubio, with 42 per cent.

So the choice is this – moderate voters can go for a Democrat with very little chance, or an independent with not much more. Whether the former or the latter, the likelihood is that Mr Rubio will be off to the Senate.

Unless, of course, tactical voting comes into it. I’m no mathematician, but the combined moderate vote is more than a match for the Tea Party support. Surely, it would make sense for one of Mr Crist or Mr Meek to step aside so that, in Chuchillian terms, the best-worst candidate can prevail.

Makes sense, right? Good tactics? Bill Clinton certainly thought so, which is why he tried to broker a deal to get the undeniably weaker of the two, Meek, to do the gentlemanly thing and depart the race. Allegedly there were promises of a good DC job for Meek in return for giving up on a dream that has no chance of being realised anyway.

But while politics is about tactics, politicians are often more about ego. Ergo, Meek refused. Meek, indeed.

Madness. Meek must know that by refusing a deal he boosts Rubio immeasurably, when having Crist in the seat would do far more to prevent the Republicans blocking Obama’s legislative programme in the next two years.

Maybe two years ago, in the giddy rush of “Yes we can”, principle could come first. But Obama’s approval ratings are plummeting, and the prognosis for the next two years isn’t good. What a shame Meek couldn’t act tactically, just this once.

Not that I’m suggesting he should have actively campaigned for his opponent. Supporting another party above your own. That would be absurd, certainly not acceptable behaviour for, say, Labour’s mayoral candidate for 2012.

Oh, but wait. Apparently that’s exactly the sort of behaviour one can expect from Ken Livingstone, who was spotted on the stump for new Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman last week – despite the presence of one Helal Abbas, Labour’s candidate.

Yes, politicians should be pragmatic and tactical. But while Mr Meek doing the gracious thing would have had a purpose, Livingstone’s support of a Respect-backed politician had no such point.

It’s ironic to think, then, that tactical “anyone but Ken” voting was so key in Boris’ victory last time.