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London, the intimate megacity

London’s mayoral election might be overshadowed in 2012 by royal and Olympic pageants, but it’s more revealing of the city’s heartbeat than either, says David Hayes.

David Hayes
8 December 2011

The world’s political calendar in 2012 includes a swathe of leadership transitions in major states, from China to France, Russia to Iran. Against this global canvas, any mayoral election looks a minor event - even when the contest is over the governance of a city of London’s scale and magnetism.

But if the vote for the mayor and the twenty-five members of the London Assembly on 3 May may struggle to find a place in the international media diary, that won’t be the case with the high-summer theatrics that follow in the city: Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee, whose centrepiece is a festive weekend in early June, the Olympic and Paralympic games in July-September, London 2012 (“Britain’s biggest ever cultural festival”), and the bicentenary celebration of Charles Dickens, master chronicler of London life and characters. This heady mix of pageantry, sport, tourism, commerce, and culture – exceptional even by London’s standards – promises to sustain if also to test official London’s claim to be a successful “world city”.

The planning for these “shared national (and global) experiences”, as event-managers and brand-marketers learned in the 1990s to call them, is well under way. A new Olympics stadium in a historically disadvantaged part of east London is the flagship of cavernous infrastructural projects - transport, housing, retail, and sporting - whose social effects and legacy are already proving controversial. More discreetly though no less vigorously, government departments and the “royal household” (in effect a department of its own) are working to ensure that the events of jubilee year - exhibitions, beacons, medals, civic honours, the queen’s procession around her realm - are a model of legitimising serenity.

The political context ensures that risk-assessment is a priority. The riots and protests that have marked London’s 2011, occurring against a background of great economic pressure on many of its inhabitants’ livelihoods and life-chances, as well as the more serious declarative threats from jihadi and Irish republican splinter groups, must be factored in. Every large public gathering, every compelling image, will continue to be underpinned by an intense security and surveillance operation. Behind the scenes, though with visible evidence on almost every street-corner, London is on permanent alert.

This technicolour season of high stakes makes the election for London’s mayor appear no more than a grey routine of “banal democracy” (to adapt Michael Billig's notion). Yet in its own terms, and even in the context of the spectacles to come, it is far from monochrome.

[To read on in Inside Story, click here - ]

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