Thursday, 28 April 2016
The election for the new Mayor of London is coming up. Voters will decide who steps into the shoes of the outgoing Boris Johnson, with polls currently favouring Labour's Sadiq Khan narrowly ahead of the Tories' Zac Goldsmith. But as I examine the various candidates it's clear that one in particular stands out for this observer; The Ephemeric endorses Caroline Pidgeon of the Liberal Democrats.
The Outgoing Incumbent
Let's start with a few words on the outgoing Mayor, Boris Johnson. People give a lot of stick to my fellow Old Etonian, but it is undeniable that London has improved greatly under his watch.
London, even 10 years ago, had a very different feel to the city we currently live in; a sort of half-baked sense of identity and stagnation, rather than the dynamic, world class powerhouse we currently live in that's more on a par with New York during its golden era. The economy is at an all time peak, with new construction booming and previously derelict public space evolving into new shops, restaurants and social plaza. But in particular it's the small touches that impress; the increased green spaces and trees, the clever renovation and branding of certain districts like the "theatre district", the higher maintenance and beautification of buildings and streets, and the clear improvement to public transport during that time. Reduced crime, reduced air pollution, public bicycles. Current day London is a marvel of culture and amenity, and a nicer place to live than it ever used to be.
For all the criticism he may get in some quarters, there is no doubt in my mind that Boris has done a very fine job in city hall. But there has been a clear downside to all the investment he has brought to the city, prices going through the roof, and wages not following proportionately. In fairness to Boris, this is clearly a trend that has been going long before he took office, but without doubt the increasing unaffordability of London is one of the key issues that the next Mayor will have to deal with.
An Overview of the Candidates
The UK's political system has a number of advantages over its American counterpart, chief among them being the relatively healthy multi-party system which allows for greater political choice, and reduces the effect of petty partisanship and gridlock that so paralyses the American legislature.
That said, of the five major party candidates, two can be immediately dismissed. The Green and UKIP candidates are such single issue platforms that it beggars belief. Watching the recent Mayoral debate and seeing Peter Whittle try desperately to link every issue to immigration would have been hilarious if there wasn't such a depressingly large segment of the population that agrees with him. The less said of anti-Semite George Galloway the better.
The three candidates that remain, not in terms of probability of winning but in terms of suitability for the job, fall to the traditional big three parties, Labour's Sadiq Khan, Conservatives' Zac Goldsmith and the Liberal Democrats' Caroline Pidgeon.
Candidate 1: Zac Goldsmith - Conservative Party
On the surface, as someone who was fairly happy with Boris (at least until his recent turn into Brexit politics), it seems sensible to have a look at his party's successor and assume that he would bring more of the same. After all, here is another Old Etonian, a fairly young and charismatic guy.
Unfortunately, Zac is a bit of a twit. In contrast to Boris' fierce intellect and mastery of the issues, Zac bears the naive image of someone who has never set foot in the world outside his billionaire father's mansion, and has no understanding of the problems facing regular people.
There is a TV show, Parks and Recreation. Paul Rudd briefly plays a character who is a billionaire's son who runs for political office. This character is the nicest guy in the world, but childlike, naive and hopelessly oblivious to what life is like in the real world.
Listening to Zac's hilariously out of touch answers in the recent mayoral debate, I could easily have believed I was listening to Paul Rudd's character. My favourite was his solution to the housing crisis that regular people can't afford to live in London, his gleeful answer being to the effect of "they won't have to because they can just take Crossrail". Then there was his claim that there's no point having bus lanes because in 10 years everyone will have an electric car. It's not that his answers are callous or corrupt, it's that he clearly doesn't understand why they are ridiculous.
But there is a far bigger concern than this. As in all democracies there is a seedy side to conservative politics that, much to the credit of this great nation, has rarely found itself too prominent in our discourse (any Brits who complain to me about the hard right leanings of Thatcher or Major need to have a look at the lunacy of the American Republican party and count their lucky stars). However with the migrant crisis and immigration taking such increased significance in recent times, these regressive politics have reared their ugly head.
The absolute deal-breaker for Zac Goldsmith is his full fledged support for the Brexit movement. I'll write a full article closer to the referendum, but suffice it to say, the UK leaving the EU is the wrong decision for many reasons both ideological and practical. Boris Johnson and Goldsmith staking their careers on this position is pure insanity. They're both wrong, and the fact that they resort to such fear-mongering shows that they know they're wrong. I will never in good conscience support anyone with so backwards a worldview that they would support a Brexit movement that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.
Candidate 2: Sadiq Khan - Labour Party
The polls' favourite at the moment, and in all likelihood the next Mayor of London. Sadiq is a better public speaker than Goldsmith, that much is clear, and he also has the benefit of running as an anti-incumbent. But Khan comes with more than his fair share of baggage and controversy.
Much of this is inherent in being a member of the current Labour Party. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is hardly popular outside his hardcore working class base, and his appointment takes the Labour Party on a hard left turn, a curious move for a party already considered too left leaning for most.
Paradoxically given my progressive persuasion, I have often found greater affinity with the British Conservative Party than Labour. In particular the relatively moderate pro-environment, technocratic David Cameron wing of the party. With the contrast of a Labour Party that frequently falls back onto outdated policies of populism and stagnation, and the lack of a consistently strong centre-left alternative, the Tories have often proven themselves the best fit for a modern centrist.
But this current Labour Party has far greater problems than even its own usual eccentricities. Corbyn has a history of controversy including anti-semitic remarks and sympathy with extremist movements such as the IRA. Add to this the recent anti-semitic scandal of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and it begins to seem as if Labour has an endemic problem. So much so that Khan has been on the warpath about reforming racism within his own party, even as he fends off accusations of his own regarding alleged anti-semitism and stage-sharing with Islamic extremists (a somewhat thin accusation in fairness). This is not a strong position to be in, and it's a wonder that it hasn't hurt Khan more in the polls.
Ultimately left wing politicos like to fancy themselves as progressive and forward moving, but with Labour that simply isn't the case. Their extreme pro-union stance will only slow the advent of exciting new technologies that could transform life in London, with transport in particular a key battleground in recent years. Their fixation on maintaining this archaic notion of a "working class" that is becoming increasingly small and unnecessary in the modern technological world smacks of regression. As a person I like Khan more than Goldsmith, but neither's policies seem anything more than just the usual party base pandering.
Candidate 3: Caroline Pidgeon - Liberal Democrat Party
Which brings us to Caroline, leader of the London Liberal Democrats with years of experience in city hall.
The Liberal Democrats have carved themselves a niche as the centrist party, the party of second choice for most of Britain both Labour and Conservative. The trouble, as in America, is that People who would otherwise vote Lib Dem don't want to vote for a smaller third party only to see their least favourite party win. They'd rather vote for their second preferred option to make sure that the winner is at least tolerable. Thererin lies the problem with first past the post voting, it inherently leads to polarization and two main parties, one for the left, one for the right. This is why the Lib Dems pushed so hard for alternative voting, a measure that was unfortunately defeated, owing to a great deal of misinformation and a fairly poorly run campaign on their part.
But I am an idealist, I'm not going to vote for a candidate I don't believe in, and the Liberal Democrats' modern, moderate policy is exactly what the city needs, not an extreme shift in either direction, just sensible forward-thinking policy that empowers the people of London. Common sense policies like half price transport fares before 7:30 to reduce peak congestion, like additional childcare in today's world where increasingly both parents need to work full time, and like 1 hour bus passes so you no longer have to buy six fares just to get to work (it works so well in Europe, why don't we have this?).
As an example of the difference between the three parties I present to you: the housing crisis. Regular people can't afford to live in London anymore. Rents are out of control, and home ownership is just a fantasy. So how is each candidate proposing to fix the problem?
Sadiq Khan says the answer is more council housing. Those ugly, run-down, blights on your neighborhood that you carefully avoid on your walk are making a comeback. Labour thinks the answer is for the Government to own more of London's property and rent it out to people at low prices.
Zac Goldsmith says the answer is more professional landlord corporations. Big private companies that own all the property in London and then rent it out at, presumably, lower and more controlled prices than the current person-to-person free-for-all.
So the two main candidates' plans for housing in London is for big organisations to own all the property and kindly rent it to you for a monthly fee. Their plan is to consign a whole generation to perpetual renting. That fantasy of home ownership? Poof, it's gone.
Caroline Pidgeon is the only candidate whose platform seems to be about actually empowering the regular person, about helping people move out of renting and get onto that property ladder. Her policies include good, common sense measures like granting extra rights to certain long-term tenants should the owner decide to sell, and increased restrictions on investment from outside the EU. While Labour and Tory policies would make it harder for you to get out of the rental trap, Caroline's are designed to give that autonomy and social mobility back to you.
And that really sums up this election. The inevitable shift to the extremes that comes with our political system has turned the two main parties into caricatures, breaking every policy down into "power to the unions, or power to big corporations?". Caroline Pidgeon and the Liberal Democrat Party is the only candidate making common sense proposals to give power to the individual, and that's why I'm endorsing her for London Mayor.