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.

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.

Politics Always the Final Arbiter – The (Not So) Fixed-term Parliaments Act

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) passed in 2011 was meant to make the calling of early elections a lot harder for Prime Ministers. As I wrote back in July 2014, there were now several obstacles in way of a Prime Minister who wanted to go to the country early. Then the speculation was heightened as Theresa May was a new Prime Minister yet to trigger Article 50 and seemingly lacking a mandate (though there is of course no requirement for a prime ministerial mandate to govern). Now the political game has changed and the opportunity has been seized, as my colleague Sarah Lieberman writes. So what has happened to these obstacles? In effect the FTPA was a political fix not a constitutional one, meant to bind the coalition partners together after the 2010 general election. If a Prime Minister can successfully manage the process and control the narrative, as May has done, the obstacles fall away. So it is that May (catching media, cabinet colleagues, parties and the public on the hop) announced her intention to call a general election for 8 June. Demonstrating the power of the Prime Minister to set the news agenda, she controlled the media narrative placing the date pretty much in stone. Gaining parliamentary approval, now a prerequisite under the FTPA, became a formality – opposition was futile (an exercise in what we often call in political science ‘path dependency’).

The technicalities mean that when the motion is put before Parliament on Wednesday 19 April, it will require 434 MPs, two-thirds of Commons MPs, to vote in favour. Labour caught in a bind – too weak to oppose and too weak to pose an electoral threat – has indicated the party will support the motion, favouring potential electoral meltdown against blocking the Prime Minister and being accused of running scared. The politics therefore overrides the legislative technicalities. As Alan Renwick of the UCL Constitution Unit points out, the rules have proved weak in constraining a Prime Minister. Indeed, although many MPs may oppose the motion – fearful of the electoral consequences, the Act may have merely shifted the choreography from a prime ministerial trip to the palace to inform HM Queen, to a procedural vote in Parliament. Despite creeping constitutionalism, politics still remains the final arbiter in the ever vague British constitution.

Dr Mark Bennister is Reader in Politics & International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His research currently deals with Prime Ministerial Accountability and the Liaison Committee. In 2016, he was awarded an academic fellowship at Parliament to continue this research.


Theresa May’s statement – what does it mean?

A snap general election will be held on the 8th of June. According to Theresa this is to unite the people of the UK, to unite the people of Westminster. She is the ‘Brexit Candidate’. She previously said she did not want a general election, but then again she also said previously that she wished to remain in the EU.

Snap general elections should have been ended by the Fixed Term Parliament Act. However, by presenting this as the ‘democratic choice’ and presenting it to the public before asking parliament for the 60% that she requires to do this, she has cornered the opposition into a position in which they cannot refuse without looking undemocratic and undecided. Jeremy Corbyn has to say ‘yes’.

By calling the election so soon, there is very little time to organise politically. It is possible that a UKRP (UK remain party) might do well in an upcoming election. However, it is a very, very short period of time to do this. In terms of opposition, the Labour Party remains divided.

This is not a second referendum: the government is divided, the opposition is divided. The alternative position is the Liberal democrat position.  If everyone who wishes to avoid a hard Brexit votes Liberal Democrat then just maybe it could be avoided…? However, the party retains the toxic reputation of the previous General Election.

May hopes to achieve a mandate for hard Brexit, and while the Labour Party looks divided and unpopular, she lacks the opposition that would prevent her course of action. This is an opportunistic move to consolidate the power of the Conservative party, and it will be surprising if this does not happen on the 8th June.

Dr Sarah Lieberman is Senior Lecturer in Politics and IR and Canterbury Christ Church University.

Theresa May’s Three-Way Brexit Fight – And Why She Cannot Win

On the 29th of March 2017, the government of the United Kingdom officially informed the President of the European Council about their intention to leave the European Union within the next two years. This so-called triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union will start a process, which will be complex with many unknown and unforeseen developments, challenges and problems on the way.

Theresa May has made it clear that she wants the UK’s departure from the EU to strengthen the Union, to improve the lives of British people and to work for both the UK and the EU.  However, this seems more and more unlikely. The Prime Minister, and her negotiation team are not just fighting a one-way battle with the EU-negotiation team about the terms of Brexit and a successor agreement that will give the UK access to the European market, they are actually involved in a three-way fight. A fight that is full of contradictions and centrifugal forces, and one that Theresa May cannot win.

Fight Number 1: The European Dimension

The UK government will spend the next two years negotiating with an EU delegation on the terms of Brexit. Some of the negotiations will be relatively simple, such as on air traffic rules and even the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU will be secured relatively quickly as there are no major obstacles on a solution for these issues on either side. Other issues, such as which access the UK will get to the European single market, the size of the final bill that the UK will have to pay and the future of free movement will be much tougher. The European Parliament has already announced that they will veto any deal that will phase out free movement early, and countries in Eastern Europe will likely veto anything that will affect financial contributions promised to them in years to come. There is still an ongoing debate about whether no deal would be a good deal. However, the complexity of reaching a deal becomes obvious when one thinks about the key priorities for the European side. There are three priorities the EU negotiators will focus on. First, the rights of EU citizens in the UK. This will be secured relatively quickly as it just needs an insurance that Brits in the EU will treated the same way. Second, the final bill the UK has to pay before leaving, for example for pension contributions to British staff that served in the Commission. Here agreement will be hard to find and a lot will depend on Germany as the now even bigger contributor to the EU to pick up some of the bill and give the UK a “better” deal. However, the third key priority for EU negotiators and linked to a trade deal with the UK, is the issue of demonstrating that leaving the European Union has serious consequences. Many saw Brexit as a first step to the EU falling apart. Germany, France, and most countries in Eastern Europe will want to prevent any impression that this is the case and that a country can leave the EU, stop paying into the budget but still enjoy all the benefits. The Germans particularly will want to set an example and Angela Merkel has announced this immediately after the Brexit vote. So, it is by no way clear that there will be a deal, and what kind of deal it will be.

© stuart anthony via

Fight Number 2: The Home Front

On the 28th of March 2017, the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of a new referendum on independence. This vote, a day before the triggering of Article 50 by the British Prime Minister, will set the tone for months and indeed years to come. While the UK government has dismissed the Scottish request for a second referendum within a decade, it will not be able to uphold this ignorance for long. Scottish people might not (yet) be convinced that independence is the better option, but most of them are convinced that Scotland should have the choice and that the UK government should not decide on Scotland’s future. There is a good chance that by the time Scotland will have a second referendum on independence (and this is just a question of time), there might be a majority for independence. In addition to the constitutional crisis in regards to Scotland, Brexit has also opened up old wounds in Northern Ireland, with Sein Fein using the topic to mobilise support for a referendum on the unification of the Irish island. The potential of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland might create new potential for conflict, but most importantly it will create huge disturbances for people and businesses on both sides of the border. In light of this, who knows, maybe the people in Northern Ireland can easier live with a united Ireland than a new hard border.

Finally, the business community in the UK will put pressure on the government to ensure access to the European market, or in case this cannot be received, to receive special deals. A special deal has already been agreed for Nissan, it is hard to see why other car manufacturers in the UK will not demand the same terms of a deal from the government.

With a constitutional crisis fully evolving, a fragile economy that has to be preparing for the worst, and many regions, Councils and communities in the UK expecting whatever affect the Brexit deal will have on them, it is hard to see how the government will be able to deal with all of these competing and in some cases contradicting demands and find a solution that everyone can live with.

Fight Number 3: The International Dimension

Finally, Brexit will force the UK government to think about the UK’s international role. This of course offers a lot of opportunities. However, in reality that international environment is about as hostile as it could be to the UK as a new actor in trade and world influence. In the USA, President Trump is about to divide his country and the international community with it. In Russia, President Putin is probing the patience of NATO. In China, the Communist Party, while formally committed to free markets, is preparing for a more competitive and protectionist era in world trade. At the same time, the UK will only be allowed to formally negotiate trade deals once it has left the European Union (until then, this remains a competence of the EU Commission). While trade deals with some countries will be signed relatively quickly, especially trade deals with the major UK markets outside of Europe (such as the US, Canada, Australia, India, etc.) will take years to negotiate. Even if trade agreements can be negotiated, even if the time span is shorter than expected, it is nevertheless hard to see how the current international environment and the limited ability and experience that the UK government has to negotiate new deals will not have an impact economically, politically and socially.

It Burns, Burns, Burns – The Ring of Fire

Brexit is the result of an ill-informed and unnecessary referendum. The British people will now have to live with the consequences. However, as has been demonstrated above, there are at least three major fights the government has at its hands in order to make any Brexit deal work and ensure a better future post-Brexit. The centrifugal forces that will hit the UK, the economic impact of the Brexit negotiations, and the future development of the international system will all have substantial impacts on the UK in the near future. Even if the UK had the best negotiators in the world (and it does not), even if Europeans wanted to give the UK a good deal (and they do not), even if the international environment was more receptive and positive (and it is not), even if all of these circumstances were met, it would still be hard to see how Theresa May and the UK government can win the fight on all these three fronts. What has happened is that in recent months more and more fires were lit by the government and fire does, what fire does – it spreads and grows out of control. Eventually, it burns.

Dr Soeren Keil is Reader in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University.