Saturday, April 19, 2008

London mayoral race doesn't inspire

I've never understood those passionate about local government. The world of sewerage, rubbish collection, footpaths, planning, bylaws, parking and strategic visions is far from inspiring. In fact whilst many of these activities are respectable businesses, the deathly bureaucratic insipidness of how local government loves to govern should send shivers down the spine of any person who has a sense of life. I'm not saying there aren't good people in local government, sadly local government dominates some sectors so that professionals in those sectors have few other places to work - roads being one. However, those who get excitement about the potential for local government to make people's lives better are really deluded and possibly ill. Local government is perhaps the least accountable layer of government there is. It generates the lowest electoral turnout, it almost always attracts people of modest achievement compared to national politics and by and large most of what it does is so tedious that only in particularly egregious cases of incompetence does it get media coverage.
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So in one respect the lack of coverage of any aspects of the English local body elections this year is a blessing - it shows how little time most people have for it. The only contest of interest is the London Mayoralty. One aspect of UK local elections is how national politics is replicated at the local level in that Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats all contest such elections, and by and large, local results reflect national polling. So this time round Labour is worried, and the prize of London is coveted by the Conservative Party.
So this is why Boris Johnson was selected. Who else could the Tories choose to defeat the self promoting ego-centric Ken Livingstone than the entertaining quick witted Boris Johnson, known for having his foot in his mouth more often than not, but by and large well loved for being a comedian. Boris's wit and general congenial character means he is a chap likely to give the Mayoralty a good shot, although some of his embarrassing past remarks have seen him be carefully stage managed, rather sadly. Livingstone on the other hand has, pretty much, seemed like a grumpy old sod who thinks he is the centre of all that is special about London, whilst he largely ignores a lengthy set of claims about the use of public resources to campaign and the waste of money by his self selected dubious advisors.
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For me I simply want Livingstone defeated. He is a ghastly little man who still blames poverty on Margaret Thatcher, is sycophantic towards leftwing dictators like Castro and happily pours money down nonsense such as "city embassies" in Caracas, Beijing and Delhi. His ambition to gain London the Olympics is seeing a monumental waste of taxpayers' money on managing it all, and granting the construction sector a massive windfall. Londoners and UK citizens may wonder how much money would be available to them all in taxes if London had abandoned this folly. A vastly overcrowded city with creaking infrastructure and a booming tourist sector doesn't need the Olympics - but it's a fait accompli I'm afraid. Livingstone has promised all sorts of socialist nonsense from free tube trips at peak times for pensioners, to his enormous public housing campaign. He has nothing good to add, and his attitude to corruption allegations (throwing the word racist at opponents) should seal his fate. Yet Boris Johnson's good qualities - wit and humble determination to do his bet, aren't quite enough to get me excited. I'll rather cheer the end of Ken than have solace with Boris.
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Take one area I DO know. Transport. It is rather hard to tell the two apart except on a couple of points. Boris doesn't like articulated or "bendy" buses, rather passionately. About the only reason to hate them is how they've become the free buses of much of London, as one notices hooded youth tending to enter by the back doors and not flashing Oyster cards to pay. Ken saw them introduced. Ken wants to convert the congestion charge into a punitive tax on big cars, Boris wont. However there is no serious challenge to the status quo. Both oppose a third runway at Heathrow Airport, although clearly there is the demand from travellers. Neither advocate doing anything substantial for roads, although London has perhaps the worst developed arterial road network of any major Western city. London's bus network costs over a billion pounds a year in subsidies, is dirt cheap to users and most buses run with very few passengers on a per km basis. The tube is costing a fortune to recover from years of public sector underinvestment, yet it doesn't cost seriously more while it is overcrowded than at other times. Meanwhile Ken pursues expensive but low impact projects like the East London line extension, whilst renationalising maintenance and management of two thirds of the tube!
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A lot could be done, but Boris doesn't want to rock the boat. He is waiting for Ken to lose, although he does advocate confronting the transport unions and fighting petty crime. That and being more spendthrift would be nice. However Boris is no Thatcher, he wont cut spending and council tax, he wont privatise what London needs privatising. London will continue to make money from the City and tourists, while bleeding elsewhere and subsidising half of its population and most of the UK, whilst having pitiful infrastructure that barely keeps up. It could be so much better, but socialist Britain wont hear of it.

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