Mayors Going Global: The Curious Case of Brexit

Max Stafford is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His doctoral research looks at the leadership of mayors in London, New York City and Amsterdam.

It is not new, these days, to talk of mayors and the irony of their playing a role in global issues, despite being local leaders. These issues include climate change, migration and security. However, within the context of the UK, mayors are also managing to play a vital role in the foreign policy issue of the day – Brexit. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, mayors’ increasing strategic involvement with issues previously assumed to be reserved to national or global-level policymaking raises the well-rehearsed concept of place-based leadership and its future in relation to local political leaders. But who are these mayors and what are they actually doing about Brexit?

  The most vocal mayor on this topic so far has been the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Though only early in his first term (having been elected in May 2016), Khan has put effort into casting his mayoralty in an internationalist perspective. Faced with an opponent (Conservative, Zac Goldsmith) whose campaign was the recipient of allegations of “dog-whistle” politics and racism, Khan spent much of his 2016 campaign talking about both the diversity of the city that he aimed to lead and also his own heritage as the child of immigrants. After the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union, he sought to remind both London and the rest of the UK (as well as his European counterparts) that the city was a key player in the global economy.

London mayor Sadiq Khan in the European Parliament | image via

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Mayors & Terrorist Attacks: The Quiet Advance of Place-Based Leadership

Max Stafford is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His doctoral research looks at the leadership of mayors in London, New York City and Amsterdam.

London mayor Sadiq Khan with a member of the London Metropolitan Police | photo via

London. Manchester. New York. Boston. Nice. Each of these cities is world-famous for a variety of reasons – from their importance to the global economy to their exhibiting of richly-diverse cultures. They have also, as with many other cities around the world, experienced the horror of recent terror attacks perpetrated against their citizens, attracting global attention. These attacks are summarised in the table below. It is interesting to reflect, however, as we approach the first anniversary of the Nice attack on the 14th July, on what the responses to these incidents have revealed about the importance of place-based leadership.

Each of the cities selected for this post had a mayor at the time of the relevant incident (though Manchester’s mayoralty had only been in existence for 18 days) and each played a pivotal role in the civic and political reaction to them. From Giuliani’s appearance with the New York Fire Department at the site of the World Trade Centre in the days following the attack through to Sadiq Khan’s standing alongside the British Home Secretary in post-attack vigils in Trafalgar Square, each mayor quickly became the public face of their city’s response. In Giuliani’s case, it led to his being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2001. But what does the prominence of these figures in the response to these incidents, and the public and media’s reception of them, tell us about the state of political leadership?

We often think of terrorism as a national political issue in terms of where the policy initiatives and leadership to tackle it originate from, in line with other matters of security. Of course, in each case the relevant national leaders did provide immediate statements on the tragedies and played their roles in helping to co-ordinate the response, including through addressing the wider national mood. However, it was the leaders of these cities, these places, who became the “face” of their communities’ reactions. Given that each of these attacks garnered an array of international attention, due to a combination of their occurring in places of economic and cultural significance and also due to captivating the global 24-hour news cycles in the days that followed, their local leaders soon received a huge spike in their public profiles.

So, Andy Burnham, despite only having been elected earlier in the same month as the attack, became the face of the political and civic reaction in Manchester. Philippe Pradal was also a new mayor at the time of his city’s tragedy, but was soon well-known beyond either Nice or, indeed, France. Khan became further entrenched as the globally-identifiable leader of London (with a combination of the terror incidents and, earlier, his pro-Remain strategic corollary to Brexit).

Menino was, by contrast with Burnham, Pradal and Khan, a long-standing mayor (being into his fifth term at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing). Nevertheless, a combination of the fact that the incident’s fallout lasted for nearly a week and also that other major global cities (for instance, London) were soon to hold marathons meant that Menino’s reassuring persona and sense of a capable approach to crisis management received a focus heightened beyond that which they perhaps otherwise would have attracted. Giuliani and Livingstone were, similarly, established mayors (having served 7 and 5 years, respectively, at the time of the atrocities). Livingstone’s association with place had already been furthered just a day earlier by the announcement (in Singapore) that the 2012 Olympics were to be hosted by London.

Thus, leaders who were elected to hold office at the local level (albeit in major cities) often find themselves imbued with greater national and international significance due to their association with the place that they lead. This place-based leadership both enhances their profiles beyond their immediate constituencies and also adds new dimensions to their roles (through their assumption of influence in policy areas that were not originally envisaged as being within their competence). Additionally, the locations covered by their political mandate experience a similar level of growth in the wider recognition that they receive by virtue of their association with the leader.

This particular place-based leadership is, then, formed of a symbiotic relationship. Place enhances a leader’s immediate profile (and with it, potentially, their political capital) and the leader subsequently ensures that their city’s response to atrocities such as terrorism receives greater public attention than it might otherwise have done.

What remains consistent between all of these case studies (where so much else about them is varied and circumstantial) is the importance of understanding the centrality of place in determining the leadership response. With other examples of this important relationship to be discovered in place-based approaches to climate change, migration, international crime and many other interest areas, it seems that this under-estimated aspect of leadership seems set to remain intriguing for a long time to come.

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.

TATE Exchange: Fairground Diaries – Tuesday and Wednesday (11 & 12 April)

The Politics and International Relations programme at Canterbury Christ Church University has collaborated with local organisations and schoolchildren to curate and present a live art intervention held at the Tate Modern: “Waste Not, Want Not”. Curated as part of the Tate Exchange programme, the intervention will be live from Wednesday 12 April until Saturday 15 April 2017. Dr David Bates, director of Politics & IR, reports from the scene of the ‘Fairground’:

“We finished installing ‘Waste Not Want Not’ into floor 5 of the Switch House, at Tate Modern at 6pm on Tuesday. We got back to Canterbury at 9pm, then back to London for a 10am start.

When the doors opened, the people started to flood in. As the saying goes ‘build it and they will come’! 

All the work in our fairground looks fantastic.

Robert – a talented Slovakian student from Astor College in Dover – has produced a work called ‘The Booth’. Visitors to the exchange seem most curious to see what is inside!

Reece also from Astor college has completed his ‘House of Horrors’. For some reason, members of the public are using this to take ‘selfies’. I have no idea why!

The work by Valley’s Kids – all the way from the Rhonda Valley in Wales – is wonderful. (See their ‘Merry-go-round of Arts and Ideas’.)    

Our colleagues from People United are enjoying lots of success with their work ‘For Me For You’, which explores the idea of reciprocal altruism.

And the work of the artist Holly McKenzie encourages you to ‘Smash the Patriarchy’!

Finally, we must note that Susannah Campbell and Lewis Bloodworth, two of our own Politics and international Relations students from CCCU, were part of the live art piece ‘Test Your Mental Strength’, a two hour discussion of concerns of a theoretical nature. Joining with visitors to Tate, we debated such questions as: ‘Democracy: Is it Worth It?’ ‘You read all em books, but you don’t know what’s living!’; ‘Survival of the unfit’; ‘gender and being a woman’; ‘the industry of love’; ‘Is there a world beyond capitalism?’

I encourage everyone to roll up to take exchange – open until 6pm on Saturday.”

Find out more here: