“Is that Boris?” cried a young female voice as Ken Livingstone, Ed Miliband and a big bunch of red balloons promenaded through the Ealing Broadway shopping centre.
“No, it’s not Boris,” replied her friend.
I couldn’t see her but I could hear her disappointment – the sound of what Ken is up against. By this time next week either a Labour Mayor Livingstone will be on the eighth floor of City Hall already implementing policies that would be good for most Londoners and London as a whole, or a Conservative Mayor Johnson will be embarking on four more years of doing no such thing.
Seems like a simple choice. Opinion polls, though, suggest that too few London voters are looking at it that way and that too many see “good old Boris” and not much else – which is, of course, exactly what the Johnson campaign and its many press proxies have wanted all along.
Team Boris gives every impression of protecting its boy from potentially unwelcome scrutiny in order to protect his lead: a no-show at a recent hustings, an opt out from BBC Radio London’s breakfast show. Tomorrow, it’s his turn to be grilled on The Sunday Politics. My strong advice is that you shouldn’t hold your breath.
But the polls still allow for a tight outcome. Ken’s rating foot-drags behind general support for Labour in London, but mud that sticks to the Tories nationally is still soil in which his prospects grow. That’s why Ed Miliband was on the trail with him this morning, not only singing his praises as the Labour candidate (that’s “the Labour candidate,” for pity’s sake) but also dirty up David Cameron and that good friend of Boris and various mutual media chums, Jeremy Hunt.
If they’re fretting about Thursday’s vote, it didn’t show. Ken greeted my arrival at Ealing Broadway station by offering me a freshly-fried chip and saying how much he’d enjoyed my calling him “stubborn” in a recent article.
“A ‘stubborn git,’ actually,” I pointed out. (A lot of thought went into that “git”.)
Ken guffawed, forgivingly.
I nattered with some of his entourage – a very nice woman from Labour HQ, another from the office of Ed Balls – and then Miliband showed up, looking shiny and enthused. Together they sailed off through light drizzle accompanied by Onkar Sahota, Labour’s London Assembly candidate for the GLA constituency of Ealing and Hillingdon, which a recent poll suggests Sahota has a chance of snatching from the Tory incumbent Richard Barnes. A flotilla of activists framed the politicians’ progress with “Ken’s Fare Deal” placards. Up ahead, apparatchiks scouted shoppers for photo-op material.
This seemed in good supply, despite Ken’s utter failure to be Boris. There were all sorts of stop-starts as Labour candidate and Labour leader posed and bantered with assorted Ealing citizens, ignored a passing fellow who crossly shouted, “Support the workers! Support strikes!” and talked to Sky News, PA and the Beeb about reducing London’s cost of living. They went into a sweet shop – Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe to be precise – and a shoe repairer’s, presumably not drawn there by the highly intoxicating smell of glue.
Once back in the fresh air Ken was hailed by a man attending a sombre tree-planting ceremony at the edge of Haven Green. Would he join it, please? The gathering, I later learned, was to commemorate the Armenian Genocide, which Ealing Council has recognised thanks to efforts of Stephen Pound, the Labour MP for Ealing North. I was told that there are around 10,000 people of Armenian descent in Ealing.
Ken seemed very game, and had taken several paces across the sodden grass before he was hauled back. Miliband, you see, was already in a car waiting across the way to whisk him to his next destination. Ken was meant to be beside him. “We’re already 20 minutes late,” an aide said, breathlessly.
Ken apologised and did what he was told – not something that happens every day. He and his party’s leader have a common interest in getting along and in being seen to do so. Expect further sightings of them in each others’ company before 3 May.