Boris Johnson Election Leaflet (Photo Credit: jaimelondonboy – licensed under Creative Commons)
Did you hear that? You’d need finely attuned hearing but I think that’s unmistakable sound of a dog whistle emmanating from City Hall in the direction of London’s suburbs. It’s widely assumed that discontent in Outer London was the cause of Ken defeat in 2008. While the data on that is somewhat mixed, its undoubetdley the case that people outside of Zones 1 and 2 were assiduously and successfully courted by Boris last time round. Some of the tactics he used last time will not work this time, in particular financial circumstances have forced him to clobber Outer London with more than its fair share of the recent fare increases. I tend to think however that Boris is starting along the process of defining a narrative around quality of life to again divide and conquer. Ken has made a bright start, but is again showing signs of getting distracted with side issues that will very quickly overwhelm any good work he does. For success he must concentrate on the job in hand, defining a vision for all Londoners that rejects Boris’s devisive approach.
I had an entertaining night out on Wednesday. It’s probably a refelction on the poor state of my social life that it was to Boris’s ‘Let’s Talk Transport’ consultation in Greenford. Abandoning any pretence at balance, the panel there was composed of three Tories, a local entreupneur (who I think only spoke 2 sentences the entire evening) and, as a sop to the near half of Londoners that don’t share Boris’s politics a token Labour politician, Julian Bell, the leader of Ealing Council. Much as I am unimpressed by Boris’s policies, there’s no doubt he comes across as a class act at these public events, or at least he does if you’ve not seen him much before. He can be funny and engaging although he does have a real tendancy to fall back on his standard stump speech once he gets going. This ranges across areas such as Venezuela (and Ken’s love of it), how much crime has fallen (at the same time forgetting how he derided the reliability of crime stats when running for office), and how he’s frozen the Council tax 2 years running (not mentioning that he’s more than made up for it by hiking up fares). I’ve seen it a couple of times and, I think, even if I was impressed by the policy positions I’d be tired of the rhetoric now.
Not that there weren’t firsts last night. Boris arrived at the event by bus, imagine that! I’d wager that the first time he’s been on one for quite a while, and by the way being pictured next to the cardboard cutout of his uncessary new bespoke one doesn’t count. His story was slightly spoiled by Julian Bell pointing out loudly that under his leadership the cost of his bus ride he’d just taken had risen substantially in the past 2 years. It may just have been me but I think I also may have spotted the beginnings of a narrative he’s fashioning for the 2012 Mayoral election, specifically directed at the ‘burbs.
There’s no doubt Boris is facing a problem with Outer London. Traditional wisdom says support there swung it for him in 2008. His problem now is that many of the things he promised then haven’t been delivered. Holding down fares? No such luck. The suburbs have, if anything, been hardest hit by fare rises. Orbital bus services? No real progress there at all and with TfL strapped for cash its unlikely anything further will be delivered at all. The things he’s going to be able to point at re-election time – WEZ removal, de-bendifiction, Crossrail continuation – are no more impactful in Outer London than in Zone 1.
Two strands in the recent time have pointed to a new strategy in development to try and change the narrative and deflect from his failure to deliver. Firstly the flurry of activity last week on a non-existent strike and “driverless” Tube trains. Let’s be perfectly clear this was nonsense from beginning to end. There was no strike planned and there are no driverless Tube trains. It nonetheless had an air of plausibility about it for anybody without a burning interest in railway infrastructure as Boris was predictably vague on the details. Taking to YouTube he de-cried the unreasonable behvaiour of the workers on the imaginary picket line. He’s been helped further now by ASLEF refusing to meet him – “I tried to work with them, but they wouldn’t speak to me”. This is just the kind of red meat that Tory supporters lap up – no one with a blue rosette ever lost votes by attacking Unions. A clearer dog whistle to his base would be difficult to find.
So far, so Tory. More interesting I think is the theme he appears to be developing around quality of life. Dave Hill reported last week a casual remark from Boris in relation to cycling:
What we want is to create, in as much of London as possible, a village atmosphere – a village atmosphere where people feel they are going to be safe on these big, clunking blue [Barclays cyle hire] bikes or on their own bikes, to cycle through the city.
Boris specifically picked up the theme again at the transport consultation proudly declaring “I want to put the the village back in the City”. Once looks like an off-the-cuff remark, twice in quick succesion looks like a strategy being honed. And call me cynical but that looks like a phrase whittled into shape via a focus group.
Now its easy to laugh at these things isn’t it? A commenter on my Twitter feed asked whether he’d inadvertantly missed the word ‘idiot’ out of the sentence and I myself dismissed it as ‘meaningless Estate Agent bullshit’. On reflection I think its more important than that. Don’t get me wrong it’s still meaningless but as a theme it has the potential to speak strongly to Outer Londoners many of whom feel only marginal affinity with those of us that live in Zones 1 and 2. Much as I like Inner London and its where I live, you’d be hard pushed to describe much of it as villagey. In many way the attraction of Inner London is that it doesn’t have many of the unfortunate side effects of living in a small, clostrophobic village. I’m not sure the people I know who live further out necessarily think that way and if he can develop the narrative into a broader quality of life theme he may be onto something. It entirely possible its one of number of themes he’s going to be road testing over the next couple of months – but the confluence of these two topics together marks a new harder, political edge at the start of the New Year.
What of Ken? Well he’s made a good start, like Boris, concentrating his efforts on Outer London with a tour of every borough in the city starting with Merton this week. His work around the fare rise at the turn of the year identified a key weakness in Boris’s armour and not a day goes by with out some transport misfortune being laid at Boris’s door and him being urged to ‘Get A Grip’. Sad then that old distractions have reared their head once again. Leading the news Wednesday night and on Adam Bienkov’s blog the following morning was Ken’s participation on Press TV, rather than any campaign announcement. Now it should be pointed out that Press TV is an officially licensed TV channel in the UK that has to comply with all the same due impartiality and other broadcast rules that the BBC or ITV do. Ken isn’t even the only person of note to have appeared on the channel – the venerable Andrew Gilligan was on there for a while, something he’s tried to explain away a great length. Nonetheless its connection with Iran makes it controversial, and Ken’s explanation that he’s on there because it’s the only channel that gives the Palestinian cause a fair go will do him no favours. Important as it is, the Mayor has next to no influence over the Middle East conflict and Londoners will rightly question whether they want a part-time Mayor/part-time Columnist (Boris) or a part-time Mayor/part-time impromptu Foreign Minister (Ken). With all his faults and damaging policies they may well conclude the former is the least worst option. Ken needs to turn to volume down on the side activites (and that includes japes likes his appearance with Lutfur Rahman) and develop a set of policy that will unite Inner and Outer London and concentrate on the things we have in common. Boris is again going to try and divide us, Ken must take a different route.