Thursday, July 19, 2007

Backing Boris to Bash Ken

Boris Johnson
A Gaffe and Offence Prone Mayor?
Crikey - Plus Ça Change...!
There have been quite a lot of things happening over the past few weeks in the world of politics. We've had a change of Prime Minister, as sadly a not insignificant proportion of the country will unbelievably have failed to notice (I kid ye not - I know at least one intelligent person who was not aware of Mrs Thatcher's demise until well into John Major's second year). Probably the biggest issue for the two main opposition parties' leaderships today will be the two bye-elections in Ealing Southall and Sedgefield, where whoever actually comes the 'distant third', that each predicts for the other will probably come under a lot of pressure, especially if it's Ming. Across the channel Senor Barroso is showing all the signs of a Napoleon Complex. Not quite like any other Napoleon complex of course, after he is, in his own words, the president of the first non-imperial empire (????). There's nothing new in what he said of course, but he's the first Commission President to have been enough of a bumbling idiot to actually say it. Jean Monet must be turning in his grave to hear the imperial ambitions of the EU proclaimed, at least so publicly, regardless of the bizarre caveats Barroso attached.

My focus though, has been strangely drawn to matters more local this week, on an issue that I've rarely given that much thought to.

The deadline to enter the primary race to be the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London passed on Monday and the likely shortlist of candidates for the primary stage appears to be coming together. Lots of hats have already been thrown in the ring already and thanks to 18 Doughty Street and Iain Dale's series of interviews I've had chance to listen to most of their owners. I really hate say it, because every one of them showed a lot of enthusiasm for the job, nerve to be standing for the post in the first place and had at least a couple of unique policies I could back, but I couldn't see a serious rounded candidate among them. The closest was probably DJ Mike Read, who I'd have to admit did impress in his Doughty Street, but at the end of the day I can't help thinking that his undoubted brand-recognition factor would ultimately have turned out to be a sword two equally well-honed cutting edges.

The general consensus as the deadline approach seemed to be that, at the last minute, Steve Norris would step into the breach for another attempt to unseat the repellent terrorist, tin-pot dictator and newt fancier. There also seemed to be another tacit consensus, if the general reaction to this possibility was any measure, that the most likely outcome in such a match up will be Norris running the Vile One (no not the Poison Dwarf (q.v) - Even Ken isn't that bad) very close once again, but again not close enough. My gut instinct leads me to the same conclusion. I just couldn't see what would be different this time around; Norris has campaigned well on his previous outings and was generally well received, Ken has continued to embarrass and inconvenience London with his various escapades but no worse than in years before becoming Mayor, or during his first term, and has continued to dodge the opprobrium the little half-wit truly deserves. There was unlikely to be a Cameron effect in play with Norris already having played an effective 'inclusive' line, even managing to blend it successfully with a bit more of a streak of toughness than party has yet managed to do on a national level.

And then after months of rumours and counter-rumours about the little known, media-shy, MP for Henley, and his ambitions, or lack of them to be a candidate for London Mayor, came the final announcement that Boris Johnson would stand for the post. Already Read and Richard Barnes have withdrawn, backing Boris, and the remaining shortlist 4 (or 5) look to be facing an uphill struggle to see off BoJo in the primaries.

It was only as the speculation became more serious about a Boris bid, that I started to think that such a bid might actually be a pretty good thing.

It's pretty easy to bring Boris to mind for a series of public gaffes and causing gratuitous offence to various communities, as well as his slightly shambolic, vague public image. That though, is to ignore the perceptive nature of his more considered writings and frankly, that through it all people actually instinctively warm to him. Even Ken on Sunday's TV seemed unable to direct his normal venom for someone of different political persuasions in Boris' direction. As for his habit of causing offence now and again, when he speaks his mind, well I think Ken shows that Londoners will live with it.

Ken contemplates a day at the
office whith no tin-pot dictators
or religious bigots to meet
I find it hard to be kind to Ken, but I think it's a similar kind of straightforwardness that gives him his appeal beyond his natural political constituency. If it wasn't for the particular inanity of some of his policies and the uncommon vileness of some of the people he shares a stage with, I suppose I too could come to a similar view, and I can see a certain something in him that I prefer to the creepiness of his colleagues in national government.

What it should make for, most importantly though, is an interesting contest, and might well fire the public imagination even beyond London. It's something the country needs in an era where public participation in the political process is falling to dangerously low levels.

There have been a hundred and one suggestions on how to reverse this trend: changing to weekend voting, voting in supermarkets or on-line, increasing fraud prone postal voting or dropping the voting age to include an age band that is probably the most politically apathetic of all. Other than this last suggestion they all have one thing in common - the idea that somehow the act of voting is too difficult for we the electorate. I think that this principle is fundamentally flawed. Time after time, when there is something at stake that the electorate both care about, and feel that their vote will count for something, the people will overcome these imagined obstacles to their participation.

The real problem, as I see it, is that at a national level with the exception of John Major's victory over Lord "I'll never take a peerage" Kinnock there has not been one general election in the time when I've had the vote where the result has been in any serious doubt. At a local level, after 10 years of centralising of control, there are so many areas where local authorities can only act as the local implementation agency for central government policy, that there is little at stake even though dramatic results can and do occur. Probably the last time I felt my vote counted for something was at the last elections to the European Parliament, as I'm sure many others must have done, and the turnout increased massively. This was despite the fact that many of us knew it would only have symbolic significance as the EU, by design, would never make the slightest course change regardless of the message from the voters.

I'm sure the next general election will be better, but perhaps only marginally so, as, while the result is far less certain, it will in all probability the choice between two flavours of bland managerialism, with a PR blitz to create a facade of 'clear blue water' between the parties.

A contest for London Mayor between Ken and Boris would be an engaging affair, doubtlessly chaotic at times, and controversial at others. It would though, be for an office that carries significant powers, with little certainty to the outcome, and between two politicians that people genuinely engage with, and that can only be a good thing.

If the prospect of Boris as Mayor brings out thousands of newt fanciers to see off Boris then so be it. That's what democracy is all about. Meanwhile I'll be backing Boris.

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