Dogged by the tax row, Livingstone has fallen behind Johnson in the personality stakes as London prepares to vote for its mayor
When Ken Livingstone hit the headlines midway into the London mayoral election campaign after his lachrymose response to Labour’s party election broadcast, Boris Johnson could not resist a joke against his “old chum” when they took part in hustings.
“He is not the only person, believe me, capable of shedding hot tears of real emotion at the prospect of his return to power,” quipped Johnson, who defeated Livingstone in 2008 and – if polls consistently putting the Conservative ahead are right – looks on course to win a second term in office tomorrow.
Last week, appreciating that he was losing in a contest in which his personal appeal apparently pales next to his Tory rival, Livingstone joined forces with Ed Miliband to cast the mayoral poll as a choice between Labour values and Conservative values rather than one between two particular candidates.
“Whatever people think about the personalities of the two protagonists, this is the wider story,” Livingstone said. “Some of us may find one of us funnier than the other, but in the end there are two parties, two sets of policies, two sets of values. That is what matters. A vote for the Conservative candidate in such a vital election is, in the end, a vote for what the Tories are doing to our country and our city.”
In all, seven candidates put their names in the ring. Livingstone and Johnson have joined their other rivals, the Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick and, often, the Green party candidate Jenny Jones, on the debating floor and broadcast studios to replay rows over police numbers, fare cuts, the lack of affordable housing, cycle deaths and crime statistics, while being occasionally floored by questions such as concerns over witchcraft.
Offstage, the only independent in the race, Siobhan Benita, highlighted the inequities of the system as she routinely found herself locked out of debates as a previously unknown entity in the political arena.
But the spotlight has been on the rematch between two larger-than-life characters both on first-name terms with the nation standing on their respective track records in City Hall as London has witnessed spats in the Boris v Ken show, over Twittergate, taxgate, and double-barrelled expletives flying out of Johnson’s mouth.
Livingstone has focused on six core pledges to help “ordinary Londoners” struggling with the cost of living; Johnson, who finally published his full manifesto on Tuesday, has set out a nine-point plan for jobs and growth. But the personality contest has remained largely that.
With no silver medal for the runner-up in Olympic year, the loser will need to decide where his future challenges lie. For Johnson, many expect an accelerated return to Westminster at the next byelection opportunity, with an enhanced CV in his back pocket. For Livingstone, who turns 67 next month, the political future is far less clear and far more perilous. Another comeback for Ken – leader of the Greater London council until the Conservatives abolished it in 1986, then first mayor of London as an independent after Tony Blair had in effect barred him from standing for Labour in 2000 – is difficult to imagine.
Tony Travers, director of the Greater London group at the London School of Economics, says: “You can never say never with Ken but if he loses it would be a terrible personal disappointment and make it difficult to try and make a bid to run as the mayoral candidate in 2016, however much he would want to.”
A new problem for Livingstone in this election is that this time the polls say he is dragging behind his party. The signs are that Labour’s share of seats on the London assembly will be boosted from eight to a possible 11 or 12 seats on the 25-strong body.
“It looks as if the Labour party has asserted some authority over what has been a below-par Livingstone campaign,” says Travers.
“It is a powerful traditional political intervention and it was the right thing to do because it was clear it was Livingstone who has been badly underperforming under a resurgent Labour party, while Boris was outperforming a seriously wounded Conservative party, so they had to turn it into a straight Labour versus Conservative fight.”
Conversely, Johnson is on course to win at a time when the Conservatives are suffering their worst set of polling figures in years against a backdrop of a government struggling to regain the momentum in the wake of an unpopular budget, the row over the cap on charity donations, and the Jeremy Hunt/BSkyB row. Cameron has made it clear that Johnson winning a second term is his top political priority for 2012, and a win for his fellow old Etonian and Oxonian would be welcome respite.
Peter Keller, president of the polling company YouGov, says: “What is happening is that the race for mayor is to a large extent removed from the party political battle.”
A YouGov poll published on Monday gave Johnson a four-point lead. Respondents believed Livingstone had achieved more in office than Johnson (39% against 32%), and was more in touch with the concerns of ordinary people (37%-14%).
But more people wanted to go out for a drink with Johnson (35%-16%), found him more charismatic (51%-14%), and honest (22%–14%).
For Livingstone, the campaign has been a turbulent ride. Selected to represent Labour after beating his rival Oona King, the political veteran had by the close of 2011 finessed his foremost pledge to cut Londoners’ fares by 7% by October this year if elected, which he claims would save the average Londoner £1,000 over four years.
Livingstone’s pitch seemed to gain traction with YouGov in mid-January, giving him his first narrow two-point lead at a time when Londoners were subjected to fare rises averaging 5.6% under Johnson’s watch. A ComRes poll a week later gave the Labour candidate the same edge, but it would prove to be short-lived. An interview with the New Statesman, in which he used the word “riddled” to refer to closet homosexuals of the past in the Conservative party, caused offence.
But it was the first hustings of the campaign on 21 February, as he joined Johnson on a platform for the first time since 2008, that triggered a real and lasting headache. In a well-received performance, he provoked oohs and aahs from the audience as he rehearsed Johnson’s comments about a “chicken-feed” salary of £250,000 for his weekly Daily Telegraph column. He pointed to Johnson’s book, penned and published while he was running London, to decry his rival as a “part-time mayor”. If re-elected, Livingstone promised to give the capital his undivided attention. Pointing to Johnson’s £143,911 mayoral salary, Livingstone mused: “If you can’t live on £140,000, you must have a very interesting lifestyle.”
By the end of the day, the Guido Fawkes political blog had highlighted the fact that Livingstone was doing rather well himself. Fawkes posted the balance sheet of the Labour mayoral candidate’s company Silveta Ltd, a company Livingstone said he owned with his wife, Emma Beal, allowing him to benefit from corporation tax, which is lower than income tax.
Repeated efforts to explain that he had set up the company to pay his wife for work she had done for him, including typing up his 700-page autobiography, as well as pay two people working on his re-election campaign, failed to draw a line under the affair. His poll rating went into reverse and his policies were eclipsed.
As the controversy refused to go away, Livingstone’s insistence on the phone-in radio station LBC 97.3 that the Conservative candidate enjoyed similar company arrangements led to the famous incident when, squeezed in a small lift, a white-faced Johnson called Livingstone a “fucking liar”. Fed up with the ongoing rucks and the way it was distracting from genuine policy debates, Jenny Jones suggested during a live debate on BBC Newsnight that all candidates should draw a line by publishing their earnings and taxes paid.
Johnson reluctantly agreed, revealing the next day his eye-popping earnings for work done outside the day job, but it was Livingstone who drew most attention by insisting that a set of criteria that had to be met by all candidates before he would publish. But by the end of the day, and amid accusations that he was reneging on a deal, he published summary accounts, but only showing the earnings he had taken out of the company.
Kellner believes the tax question has played into a wider problem for Livingstone. “I think Ken has a cluster of image problems: he is seen as past his sell-by date, and as someone who is no longer regarded in the same way,” the poll expert says.
“The issue with the tax arrangements fits into that. He used to be the cheeky chappy like the rest of us. Now he is seen as a bit fancy and a bit removed.”
The Conservative candidate, on the other hand, seems relative unscathed by his own difficulties. His controversial decision to migrate the mayor of London’s official Twitter feed to his re-election campaign, accruing 253,144 followers in a stroke and switching the link to the City Hall website with one to his re-election campaign site quickly died down after he agreed to stop using the account for election purposes, despite initially dismissing critics.
While Johnson has repeatedly challenged the feasibility of Livingstone’s fares cut, he has refused to spell out his own fare figures for the next four years, and there has been little scrutiny of the merits of his own pledges. A promise to save Londoners £435 in council tax is in fact a reference to his first term, when he froze the precept for three years and cut it by 1% this year. The headline figure is based on hypothetical increases that he believes Livingstone would have introduced if he had held the reins for the past four years. His promised 200,000 jobs over four years are mostly derived from a number of projects that will be delivered with or without Johnson in charge, from Crossrail to housing projects in the capital and the Olympic legacy.
This week, Johnson went on the offensive after it emerged that he was in talks with James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks at News International in an attempt to get sponsorship for his cable-car idea and a school academy while the Met was investigating the company. Johnson, who famously dismissed allegations of widespread phone hacking as “codswallop” in September 2010 when he was chairing the now-defunct Metropolitan Police Authority, accused the journalist concerned of talking “fucking bollocks”. A day later, Johnson blamed the BBC for including a “jocular and regrettable out-take” in a broadcast, despite the fact he had said it directly to camera.
At a time when the government is making noises about clamping down on tax avoidance, it also emerged that Johnson has been using the offices of an international mobile phone company, Lycamobile, that has paid no corporation tax in Britain for three years despite generating a turnover of between £47m and £88m.
Sonia Purnell, who recently updated her unauthorised biography of Johnson, Just Boris, identifies the slick campaign overseen by Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist who ran Johnson’s successful campaign in 2008. Crosby imported an American telephone campaign technique that has allowed Johnson to take part in conversations with about 50,000 prospective London voters at a time on two occasions, alongside question-and-answer sessions on Twitter.
Public outings of the gaffe-prone Johnson have been even more tightly stage-managed than last time, according to Purnell, citing a recent attempt to quiz Johnson on the campaign trail. “One of Boris’s minders repeatedly barged in to block my questioning of Boris and although a big, tall chap he later squared up to me to tell me I had no right to ask questions or be there at all. It was extraordinary. It is so stage-managed and so controlled.”
Purnell says while Crosby is “detached and driven” in his approach, she senses there is more emotion tied up in Livingstone’s close team, spearheaded by Simon Fletcher, his former chief of staff at City Hall.
“Some people who work with him have been with him for a very long time so it’s probably very difficult to say to Ken ‘No, you can’t do that’ and when he goes off on one they just put their heads in their hands.”