Rebels running London? The mayoralities of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson compared

With the upcoming mayoral elections, our attention turns to mayors and their powers. Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister reflect on the terms of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. They draw on their new paper to explain what it is that we can learn from how the two first elected mayors of London ran the city.

To lead a huge global city regarded as ‘ungovernable’, the mayoralty of London offers a powerful platform but relatively weak powers. The office of London Mayor has power over transport and planning but has far less money that their equivalents in Paris or New York, and is caught politically between central government above them and the 32 London boroughs underneath them. The two mayors did claw back some greater clout over time, over areas such as policing and the Olympic legacy, but the office remains surprisingly short on power and financial muscle.

On paper, the two mayors’ similarities are remarkable. They were exactly the sort of colourful individuals who were supposed to revitalise local government and innovate with policy. Both were controversial, party rebels, mavericks, and skilled political operators with highly attuned media skills and presence: as ‘Ken’ and ‘Boris’ they were two of the few politicians in the UK to be known by their first name. Their two ‘friendly’ and maverick exteriors also concealed political ruthlessness – they even seem to share the same unhealthy obsession with ill-informed and ill-advised Second World War comparisons.

Both mayors governed London at times of economic expansion. They used publicity to make up for weak powers and were pushed by their powers towards transport and planning: Livingstone gave permission to 27 tall buildings and, although Johnson promised to put a stop to any ‘drab, featureless and phallocratic’ towers, he then authorised 437. They also struggled with deeper, cross-cutting issues such as housing. While Boris built a few more houses than Ken (partly because he changed the designation of what was ‘affordable’) both fell far below their targets. Both their mayoralties constantly courted controversy and, because of their patronage powers, the two mayors each built a US style system (a Kenocracy and Borisocracy) and later faced charges of corruption and cronyism.

However, it is their differences that are the key to understanding what they did in London. In the 1980s, Livingstone governed the city of London as head of the Greater London Council and had local government experience that stretched back to the late 1960s. Not only had he run London for 6 years but as ‘Red Ken’, he endured hostility and perfected the art of populist showmanship while pushing radical (and sometimes unpopular) policies. By contrast, Boris had no local government experience and very little time in political office. His skills were more presentational and journalistic: Johnson was, as one assessment put it, ‘long on charisma and short on detail’.

As mayors, this translated into rather different aims. Livingstone had a multicultural, egalitarian vision of London which fed a set of clear policy aims. Johnson adopted a more cautious approach wrapped up in what one biographer called a ‘Merry England Conservatism’, and championed cycling, lower tax and ‘old’ buses. His caution and populism was shaped by his desire for higher office.

Their very different experience also told. Livingstone was seen as an expert delegator and executive, with an experienced team, but was prone to provoking controversy and polarising opinion. Livingstone lost focus in his second term when he was suspended from office for a month for bringing his office into disrepute afterlikening a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard and went on to fight a virtually open war with the media. By contrast, Johnson delegated detail to others and allowed a series of very able deputies to do the ‘running’ of London while Johnson did the photo ops. The press enjoyed a far less hostile relationship with the ever-entertaining Johnson.

Perhaps the greatest difference is in policy terms. Livingstone pushed ahead with the radical congestion charge that succeeded against most predictions. In echoes of his time at the Greater London Council, he also pushed cheaper transport and a series of symbolic policies including civil partnerships. On the world stage, he helped with his one time nemesis Tony Blair to win the 2012 Olympics and was widely praised for his response to the 7/7 bombings. He also created a series of London embassies across the world (nicknamed ‘kenbassies’ by the media).

Mayor Johnson constantly chased spontaneous events and opportunities and made headlines: he thrived in the 2012 London Olympics hanging off a zip wire. Johnson was far more modest in policy terms, with his most recognised policy being his famous ‘Boris Bikes’. Following his penchant for media attention, Johnson pursued ‘showy’ ideas from cable cars to buildings and promoted several grand projects that failed to come to fruition, from London’s ports to the Olympic Park to a new airport on the Thames Estuary (dubbed, of course, ‘Boris Island’). Boris Island also avoided the controversy over expanding Heathrow that could prove divisive for his mayoralty and for any parliamentary seat near London. As with Livingstone, Johnson suffered a series of distractions. His two terms and his entire mayoralty were, in some senses, a preparation to fulfil his ambitions for higher office (and to become Prime Minister).

The two mayors, as many predicted, clashed with bodies above and below. The two mayors also used their office to negotiate but also challenge central government – at times there seemed to be a running London-Whitehall battle. Livingstone went to court over the partial privatisation of the London Underground tube, sided with strikers and spoke out against Iraq. Johnson also regularly fell out with central government, though this was a little more about positioning and frequently stole the limelight from the Prime Minister at a succession of conferences and events. Most damaging for Cameron, Johnson broke Conservative party policy in calling for a referendum on the EU from 2009 onwards, and also became a champion for lower tax – twin areas, by a strange coincidence, that would curry favour with backbench Conservative MPs who would vote in a leadership election. Both mayors clashed downwards with London’s local authorities, especially over planning – though Ken more than Boris, who championed ‘outer London’.

So despite their ‘cheeky’ and rebellious styles, Livingstone and Johnson proved to be very different London leaders. This FT article argued that ‘one reason for [mayors’] popularity is that with so little power not much can go wrong’. This may be somewhat exaggerated (think how a failed congestion charge would have undone Livingstone or a messy 2012 Olympics for Boris). Both ‘Ken’ and ‘Boris’ used their time as Mayor of London as a platform for personality-led politics and policy. Livingstone’s mayoralty was a platform for personalised change while Johnson’s was one for personal ambition.


This post first appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog on 27 April 2017.

The full paper ‘Rebels as Local Leaders? The Mayoralties of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson Compared’ can be read here.

About the Authors

Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power. You can read chapter 1 here.

Mark Bennister is Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Labour’s Brexit Strategy: Cut-&-Paste of Theresa May’s old promises?

This week, Labour revealed its Brexit strategy – Jack Brooks takes a closer look.

In the 10 months after the 23rd of June, the Labour party’s position on Brexit and what should happen next has been a bit… ‘undefined’ to say the least. They have been in an incredibly tough position of simultaneously wanting to appeal to the 63% of its voters that voted remain and not start any rebellions within the 218 out of 232 MPs that publicly supported remain, while also wanting to appeal to the 37% of its voters, 161 Labour held constituencies that voted leave and not hemorrhage any more of its working class support, a demographic that predominantly voted leave.

Having considered the above, it appears that Labour party HQ decided that their best course of action was to a) keep their head down, b) meekly try to appeal to both sides, while not really saying anything concrete, but c) mainly just oppose the government by saying. Of course, Labour was dealt a tough hand and this is a solid electoral strategy that, on the issue of the financial crash, saw the Liberal democrats sweep to 23% of the popular vote in 2010.

But then, like a renowned bandit brazenly slamming open the shutter doors to a sleepy Mid-western Saloon, Theresa May called a snap General election. The music stopped playing, everyone went silent and slowly turned their heads to the Sheriff who loudly gulped and realised it was his turn to say something… Sherriff Jeremy Corbyn was taken slightly aback and thus came out with a strategy that, with a few key differences, is basically the same plan the Conservative Government had in November.

First, let me know the few key differences:

  • Labour will not focus on new markets, instead focus on securing the UK’s existing trade ties, especially those with the EU
  • Labour will adopt a much more conciliatory tone with the EU27 in exit talks
  • Labour resolutely supports staying in: Erasmus, Euratom, the European Medical Agency, Europol & Eurojust
  • Labour promises to unilaterally protect EU citizens’ right to remain in the UK
  • Labour commits to not let the UK “lag behind EU in workplace protections or environmental standards in future”

These are a couple of added giveaways to Remainers that will certainly sweeten the Brexit blow for them, but in terms of the “real meat” of the last 10 months debate so far – ‘Hard Brexit versus Soft Brexit versus No Brexit – their position is the now infamous “having the cake and eat it too”-Brexit.

This is illustrated by statements by Keir Starmer in the same press conference on Tuesday:

  • He wants to rip up the Government White Paper and go for a “tariff-free trade with the EU, no new non-tariff barriers on trade, regulatory alignment and continued competitiveness in goods and services.”
  • However, he still rules out continued free movement, membership of the European Free trade area and Single market membership.

As Theresa May discovered to her dismay in January, these two things are incompatible as far as the European Union is concerned. When she proposed it as her plan, the EU27 said for all intent and purposes “We won’t agree with that and you will crash out with no deal”. An eventuality that Starmer said would be the “worst possible deal”.

Electorally, the Labour Brexit plan might make sense. Labour continues to (try to) appeal to both sides and win the election. Corbyn and his party will only need to deal with untangling the contradictory manifesto commitments after they have won.  Also why look a gift horse in the mouth? The blessing of being the opposition with staggeringly bad polling is that you don’t have to live in the bounds of reality (which is quite a lot of effort in any case). Nevertheless, if we do experience the largest polling mistake in modern history and Labour wins a majority, we need to expect a lot of back-paddling.

Jack Brooks is a 2016 Politics and International Relations Honours Graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University and graduate coordinator at the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at CCCU.

#GE2017 and Brexit – Traincrash vs lucky escape

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or, god forbid, without adequate WIFI for the last day, you will be aware that we are having a snap election in just over 7 weeks’ time on the 8th of June. While seemingly the entirety of the UK population is preoccupying itself by venting their joy and frustration into the bottomless void of Twitter, I would like to take a moment to talk about Brexit and what this means for the upcoming negotiations.

In the short term, it means kicking the can down the road, but fortunately snap elections are… well, snappy. It seems highly unlikely we are going to hear anything major out of the Government over the next 7 weeks, not least because Parliament will be dissolving in 2 weeks time, the pre-election ‘Purdah’ will be kicking in any moment and the Prime Minister is going to be spending most of her time staging awkward photo-ops with nursery children.

My one word of warning, however, is that this ‘Article 50 Road’ is not very long and we are already going to spend the best part of 6 months of it with the French and German elections. Using these potentially crucial, if short, 7 weeks before the German elections start in earnest messing around with our own election might come back to bite us when we are scrambling to get a deal, transitional or not, in 2019.

But on the other side of the channel, the EU27 have an interesting opportunity to throw a spanner in the works if they so wish, as there is a European Council meeting on the 29th of April. Whether or not they will is a speculation too far for this graduate coordinator, but if they believed they might get a better deal out of Jeremy Corbyn than Theresa May, or fancied a 28th member in the form of an independent Scotland, or if they just wanted to make life difficult for Theresa May by pulling a lever or two and forcing her into some manifesto pledges, now is the time for Donald Tusk to start honing his spanner-throwing skills.

With a longer term view, I muse two possible alternatives;

The first and, YouGov willing, much more likely outcome of this election is that May doesn’t have any moving vans arriving outside of No.10. If she wins, it seems fairly likely that the UK negotiating position will stay more or less the same: No European Court of Justice, No Single Market, No Customs union, but with a Free Trade Area and some form of customs agreement that allows for minimal non-tariff barriers, and a hard border in Dover but a soft one in Northern Ireland. Indeed, if as seems most likely she increases the Conservative majority in House of Commons she will treat this as a cast-iron validation of her Brexit strategy. Alongside this the EU27 position is unlikely to change much either unless there is the arrival of the aforementioned spanners.

I suppose there is a chance she has some electoral difficulties: perhaps she becomes concerned about her ‘Brexity’ base being tempted to UKIP or her ‘Remoany’ base being tempted by the Lib-Dems, and is forced into changing the Brexit strategy to appease an aspect of her coalition, but given her batting average of 46% vote share in the most recent Comres poll, this doesn’t seem that likely.

The second and, Ipsos willing, much less likely outcome is that Theresa May cannot achieve a majority. This alternative would be very chaotic and a massive upset to the Article 50 process will ensue. The polls seem to suggest Corbyn has a snowman’s chance in hell of actually getting a majority. So this alternative looks something like a Lib/Lab/SNP coalition or Con/Lib coalition…. here are two Buster Keaton GIFs as to what that might resemble:


To sum up, if everything goes according to Theresa May’s plan and the polling is correct, the snap elections shouldn’t affect the Brexit negotiations too much – yet, Trump is in the White House, Marine Le Pen has a shot at the French presidency, Leicester City boasts a Premier league victory and Britain voted to leave the European Union…

Jack Brooks is a 2016 Politics and International Relations Honours Graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University and graduate coordinator at the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at CCCU.

The Snap election and the risk of ‘No Scottish mandate’

On 8 June 2017 voters will be at the polls again. The Prime Minister has called a snap election in order to bolster her plan for Brexit and unite the country.

But will another election really unite the country? Highly unlikely. Polls suggest that the SNP will not lose any of the 56 seats it won in 2015. In fact, it is not entirely implausible to argue that the Conservatives, may lose their only Scottish seat. The incumbent Secretary of State for Scotland held onto his seat in 2015, but with a feeble majority of only 798 votes. This will indeed be a key target seat for the SNP, but the Tories are equally enthusiastic about usurping the Nationalists.

What happens, however, if the Conservatives win a majority of seats in England but have no seats in Scotland? This predicament, oft-described as the’ Doomsday Scenario’, is not new and was increasingly discussed during the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. If the Conservatives lose their only Scottish seat, the phrase ‘no Scottish mandate’ will once again be bandied around. It worked in the 1980s and 90s to fuel support for a Scottish parliament, might it also work to boost support for independence?

Since 2014, the SNP’s electoral juggernaut has shown very few signs of slowing down. The upcoming general election is not a referendum, but will no doubt be framed in Scotland as a dichotomous choice: Union versus Independence. The vote on June 8 has already been dubbed the ‘Brexit election’, but in Scotland the dominant issue – once again – will be independence and Indyref2.

Paul Anderson is a PhD researcher at Canterbury Christ Church University. His main research focuses on territorial autonomy and secessionist movements in western plurinational democracies.