Not perfect and more work to do, but Ken’s the better choice

The choice of candidates wasn’t ideal and the campaign not entirely riveting, but the different choices on offer to Labour members for their candidate for Mayor are now clear. Oona King has made great play of being the new kid on the block, but that’s been at the expense of developed policy ideas particularly in the area of transport. Far too often she has also forgotten that the real enemy are the Tories and not her fellow Labour members who may have just chosen not to support her. Ken is also far from being the finished article that can put right what went wrong leading up to his defeat in 2008, but some positive elements have appeared during the campaign. Because of this, his greater grasp of the problems London faces and his greater experience, he is the better choice for the Labour Party.

Ballot papers have been dispatched today to choose Labour’s candidate for the mayoralty. All in all its not been a terribly eddifying campaign so far and with just four weeks to go I would say it now stands little chance of getting any better. In many ways the initial shortlisting set the tone for the entire piece. Just two realistic candidates stepped forward to take the challenge and given the opposing wings of the party that they could be pigeon-holed as representing it was always going to be a bit testy. It would have been much better, I think, had we had a wider range of candidates to choose from. I am on the record here as indicating that I think Alan Johnson would have made a much stronger candidate than either of the two options that are currently on offer. You can’t obviously compel people to stand and he chose not to. But it did leave London Labour Party members with a restricted choice of directions that one observer characterised as a choice between a pisshead and an airhead.

For all that though we are where we are – and you can only choose between what’s put in front of you. In that case I am going for Ken and naturally, given I think he’s the better candidate, I’d recommend others do as well. There are three main reasons for going in that direction.

1. Transport is key

It may just be my bugbear, but I think that transport is key to any mayoral candidates chances of success at the election and in office. It is the thing that impacts Londoners every day of their working life and it is the area where the Mayor has most direct influence at present. Oona’s ideas in this area were late arriving and often impractical. She started with extra school buses (not needed) and an enhanced river service (nice but expensive and of limited use) and ended with suggesting London buses be allowed to carry bikes. The latter feels very much like an ‘eye-catching initiative’ that everyone knows is impractical but is thrown in to gain some favourable news coverage and make it look like she’s being bold. It’s true that some cities do have the facility to carry bikes on their bus transit systems (its quite common in the US) but none where the service is used so heavily as London. I’m just trying to imagine what the 18 would be like if someone tried to squeeze a bike on at peak times or held the bus to place it on a rack at the front/back of the vehicle. There’d probably be a riot.

Ken on the other hand has stuck to the knitting – and why not? His record in office speaks for itself. Boris would have plenty more time to spend in his office peeling grapes if he wasn’t so distracted opening (and taking credit for) transport projects started in the Ken-era, now coming to fruition. I am a passionate advocate of cycling but for all the benefits it can bring we have to be realistic that the majority of people are still going to rely on buses and tubes to get around London. The first order of business is to protect those services from cuts and enhance them where possible.

2. You should stick to the things you can change

Nobody thinks that the level of youth crime is currently acceptable or desirable. That both candidates want to reduce the level of teenage murders and stabbings is laudable and valuable for London. But the Mayor only controls a small number of the levers that can influence that problem. The Tories are suggesting they will give greater powers to the Mayor over policing. It may well be they think again on that if Boris is ejected in 2012, but even if they don’t policing is only part of the solution. Oona however made this a cornerstone of her campaign. As such, I think she’s left herself exposed in exactly the same way that Boris did in 2008 by promising to bear down on the problem only to find in office its more difficult than assumed. Ken may have rashly given the impression that he didn’t think there was a problem by blaming the media for scaremongering but I think he understands the complexity all too well.

And what on earth was the benefit to Oona of wading into a debate on whether the Freedom Pass should be means tested? The Mayor neither funds nor controls the Freedom Pass. In fact the only power the mayor has is a reserve power to ensure its not removed.

3. I am not your enemy

It’s a failing of intra-party elections like this that candidates inevitably tend to attack each other (even if its only in code) to get elected. After all they have to draw distinctions between each other to influence the electorate. The problem is that this gives the real enemy (the Tories) ample ammunition to use in the real election in 2012. All this is to be expected. However, my sense is that Oona’s campaign has stepped well over the mark in this respect. At some points I felt (and I’m sure other members felt the same) that I was being marked out as the enemy simply for favouring the other candidate.

More generally there’s been quite an unpleasant ageist undercurrent which I’m sure Oona wouldn’t support but has been allowed to emerge in her campaign. Where people are living longer we should be valuing their expertise at whatever stage in life they are at. To suggest, as has been the case, that someone is ‘over the hill’ at 65 when they may have 30 years or more to live and contribute to society is simply offensive.

So is Ken perfect? No, far from it but some positive changes have emerged. His campaign was launched in the suburbs and he’s continued to iterate on theme’s that the electorate in those areas will find compelling. There is a lot more to do but he has made a start at changing people’s perception of him as a Zone 1/2 mayor. Of course all of this could change overnight. No-one (except possibly Russell Crowe) does feuds better than Ken. One ill-judged remark and we could end up back in the same position as we were before the 2008 election with a never-ending stream of negative publicity that will allow Boris to capitalise. The basics are there now however and with thought and care we could end up with a sensible Mayor in City Hall and with it an end to the drift and confusion that characterised the current administration from day 1.

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