What Mayor Boris Johnson signals for the Left

Jeremy Gilbert
22 May 2008

Boris Johnson mayoral victory
David Cameron congratulates Boris Johnson on being elected mayor of London in 2008. | PA Images

This is the first in our new OK In Depth essays. It's long (4,500 words) and sets out a framework for what is arguably the most important electoral change in England since 1997. The pdf function for printing it (and the email to a friend) are at the end.

On 1 May Ken Livingstone - arguably the most intelligent political operator on the left in Britain and a bold, relatively principled and creative politician whose originality greatly exceeds that of Tony Blair - was defeated by Boris Johnson in a direct election to be Mayor of London. Johnson was known as an entertaining character (like ‘Ken', he is usually known by his short given name), but one who was so unreliable he had already been expelled from the Conservative shadow cabinet. So how did he win?

Jeremy Gilbert is Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of East London. His publications include Discographies: Dance music, culture and the politics of sound (with Ewan Pearson, Routledge, 1999); and Cultural Capitalism: Politics after New Labour (ed. with Timothy Bewes, Lawrence Wishart, 2000).

Also by Jeremy Gilbert in OurKingdom:
"Who is the Democratic Candidate for Mayor?"
(30 April 2008)

It is surely not enough to evoke the ‘perfect storm' of coincidences which the Guardian blamed for Ken's political demise. The moment suggests an important truth about British political culture. Indeed may it mark a historic turning point. Usually, when the aspirational voters of the suburbs identify with the urban centres - and think of the cities as places they want to be, or have something common with - they tend to vote Labour. This is what happened during the ‘Cool Britannia' episode which carried New Labour to power in 1997. When the suburbanites turn away from the cities - thinking of them as places that they fear, or envy, or simply cannot afford to live in - then ‘Middle England' tends to assert its quasi-pastoral Tory identity, as it did following the urban unrest of the late 70s and early 80s.

The shift from Ken to Boris is an especially significant moment. On the one hand, it was the product of a classic desertion of Labour by the suburbs: Ken won far more support than Boris across the central London region - and the new mayor may well face considerable resentment there as his term progresses - but the strength of the suburban vote was enough to carry the day for the Conservatives. On the other hand, Boris' election may mark the emergence of an urban, even a multicultural Toryism.

Political motivation and identification are complex things. The strengths and weaknesses of candidates' images and styles are likely to connect with various constituencies in different ways. Some simplification is inevitable in any sketch of how they resonate with the wider culture in which their images circulate. But it seems clear that, as the New Labour experiment is sucked into the vortex of financial globalisation to which it pinned its fate, a new strain of British conservatism is emerging which is as at home in the city as the country house - a process initiated by the arrivistes of Thatcherism but now confirmed by the popularity of the David Cameron's "Notting Hill Set". A successful left response to this will take a lot of work, and will have to start from a much deeper understanding of what has happened to politics itself over the last decades than is currently on offer.

This essay, then, will take a three-fold look at the meaning of Boris Johnson's assumption as Mayor of London. Firstly, it will ask, what were the qualities of Ken that Boris defeated? This question has real interest: in contrast to the obvious weakness and duplicity of Blair's New Labour, which clearly helps to explain the rise of David Cameron, Livingstone was not unpopular (his core vote remained high despite his lame and tired campaign). His defeat despite the strength of his achievement is an indication of the novel quality of Boris's appeal. To measure the latter we need to acknowledge the former - before considering what the rise of Boris tells us about UK politics. Finally, we must ask how democrats should respond to the situation

The Originality of Ken

In 1986 Margaret Thatcher's government abolished the Greater London Council (GLC) which had been led by Livingstone since 1981. The move was part of her attempt to "destroy socialism" in Britain through the exercise of central power, and it left Europe's greatest city headless, without any overall elected government. Labour was committed to undo Thatcher's decapitation and after a London-wide referendum that endorsed its creation, a new Greater London Authority, the GLA, came into being in 2000. This was far from a simple return to the past.

The GLC had been a traditional borough-based municipal body that elected its leader in a parliamentary style. The GLA by contrast was to be much more limited in its powers but at the same time to be headed by an American style executive Mayor to be directly elected by London's millions of residents - in its own way an even more extraordinary innovation in UK politics than Thatcher's high-handed abolition. Indeed, it was a constitutional innovation that has put London politics on a par with developments in Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland, where devolution has released energies distinct from the damp and drafty pomposities of Westminster and Whitehall.

In the meantime, Livingstone spent 14 years in the parliamentary wilderness, isolated by the leaders of New Labour who detested his brand of leftist populism. Realising that his ambition to climb his party's ladder was hopeless, Ken turned back to London and the lure of a Mayoral office. When the Labour machine deprived him of this opportunity too, despite the fact that he was obviously the best qualified candidate and remained popular across London, not least amongst Labour's own supporters, Livingstone ran as an independent. His campaign destroyed the other candidates - including the hapless official Labour candidate, the previously popular Frank Dobson - and he romped home (a harbinger of the political weakness of New Labour).

Although his powers were limited, he nonetheless transformed London's transport infrastructure in a short time. He introduced free bus travel to pensioners and young people. He has brought traffic congestion under control when most predicted that he would fail to do so. He managed to improve pay and conditions for some of London's poorest workers. He brought the Olympics to London against all expectations. He has overseen a period of extraordinary expansion in the capital while social costs and conflicts have been minimised. He has kept faith with his most radical supporters while maintaining his famous political pragmatism. He personified the open, unprejudiced yet forthright spirit of the capital.

A sense of his achievement and the support it could generate can be discerned in this passage from an open letter in support of Ken against Boris, drafted by Neal Lawson of the Compass group (and signed by a wide range of the left's ‘great and the good') when he felt that Livingstone's campaign was slipping to defeat:

From a newly created post and a new institution Livingstone's record is impressive... certain decisions stand out. Not least the Congestion Charge, which was as brave a political move as anyone has made in British politics for years because it socialised the failure of private transport and offered a coherent and workable alternative to the car against initial public opinion. On this issue Livingstone made the weather against the odds. Millions now enjoy better and cheaper public transport. When we look around London we see a public realm that has been transformed with renovated squares, parks and river banks for everyone to enjoy and share. It is a London at ease with its multi-cultural identity, and Livingstone has played a decisive role in that. Not least because he opposed the war in Iraq. This is the politics of equality and real opportunity.

Yet Livingstone went down with hardly a whimper.

One explanation is that Ken was the victim of a relentless campaign by the Evening Standard, the only London evening paper apart from the free sheets. But ‘Our Ken' has a unique record of withstanding tabloid assaults since 1981 and even benefiting from them. Another is that Livingstone himself failed to make the case for his distinctive politics and for the first time in his life failed to offer novelty and freshness. But this was the case in the London election in 2004 after he had rejoined Labour and stood as its official candidate. To explain his defeat, then, we must look more deeply at what Ken has stood for.

Ken Livingstone has meant many things to many people. But in almost all contexts, what he has ultimately represented is the possibilities, the potential, and the threat, of politics itself. His election as mayor in 2000, running as an independent after being a Labour MP, despite all of the efforts of the Labour leadership and when Blair himself was at the height of his influence, was a striking example of popular opinion democratically exceeding the limitations imposed on it by bureaucracy and institutionalised power. Earlier in his career, Livingstone as leader of the GLC drew the fury of the Right for daring to accept, even to encourage, the public politicisation of issues like race, gender and sexuality: issues which had previously only been addressed by movements cut off from the official political process. His promotion of gay rights, feminism and anti-racism as explicit policies of government was once seen as, at worst, dangerous extremism, at best lunatic idealism.

Very few political figures have ever been prepared to acknowledge themselves explicitly as racist, or sexist, or even homophobic. In this country, the dispute between radicals and conservatives on these issues has never really been about whether racism or sexism or homophobia were bad things. Almost everyone schooled in the British liberal tradition - which includes most Tories, as well as all of the ‘centre-left' - has always accepted that they were. No, the argument has rather been about whether such bad things actually exist as distinct social phenomena, or whether they are merely accidental character defects, shared by an insignificant minority of individuals.

Historically, the country's powerful have propagated the view that there is really no such thing as ‘racism' at all in our government, instead viewing discrimination against non-white people as an unfortunate but unsystematic manifestation of the casual, ignorant prejudice of the unenlightened (i.e, normally, the working classes...). Until well into the 1990s, bodies such as the Metropolitan Police refused to entertain the legitimacy of ‘institutional racism' as a concept, and certainly resisted any suggestion that it might be endemic within their own organisations. It may seem incredible from a contemporary vantage point, but prior to the publication of the Macpherson report in 1999, the Met - which every Londoner with open eyes knew to be guilty of routine and vindictive harassment of black people - insisted that police racism was merely incidental, the unfortunate peccadillo of ‘a few bad apples'.

The idea that ‘racial' and similar issues can be considered as proper subjects for political intervention, is one that has had to be fought for over decades, and one which lots of people would still like to deny, given half a chance. Here, in an area much more important than traffic jams, Livingstone - almost alone amongst UK politicians - "socialised" the human injustice which millions felt everyday. But what comfortable white citizen or well cared-for husband really wants to be bothered thinking about their own potential complicity with a systemic culture of discrimination, when it's so much easier just to sneer at any concern with such issues, dismissing it as ‘political correctness' and insisting that anyone can succeed if they really want to, no matter what their gender or the colour of their skin?

Such sneering or mockery is often a way of trying to shut down public conversations on issues such as race, sexuality and gender. By contrast, believers in democracy - in its broadest sense - have always sought to expand the realm of politics: that is, the realm of public discussion and collective decision-making. This isn't just a question of expanding the power of the state. Indeed, it very often means the reverse, when public opinion decides that long-held privileges of the state ought to be revoked. Rather, it is a question of expanding the range of issues which are up for grabs in our culture and our society as public issues over which individuals and groups can potentially be held accountable and about which proposals for change might be put forward, be they suggestions about how men and women might better share domestic chores or suggestions as to how government should dispose of taxes.

Ken has historically embodied this democratic willingness to politicise. As he put it in his account of his GLC years, those who formed the left group which he headed "shared a common belief that the personal was political and politics affected every aspect of our daily lives". (p 93) Of course, everything should not be politicised. Taken to extremes, making the personal political becomes totalitarian and leave no room for personal life or the private: this is the kernel of truth which hides inside the myth of the ‘politically correct' liberal conspiracy. But Ken was different from both the sectarian leftists, such as the Trotsykists with whom he associated, and from mainstream Labour culture, in his permissive insistence on people's political right to be different. The left he led was distinguished, in its early days at least, by its view that "no one was allowed to set themselves up as the judge of who was or was not a ‘real' leftwinger", (p. 92) and his leadership of the GLC was marked by openness and remarkable decentralisation ("I believed that the wider and more open the decision-making processes were, the more likely we were to come to correct decisions" (p. 141). Livingstone protected difference rather than, in traditional Labour style, seeking uniformity. In this way he politicised the claims of the oppressed as well as the poor.

Resistance to such politicising comes for the most part from those who have the most to lose if existing arrangements become proper subjects for discussion. Both social conservatism and economic liberalism can be pressed into service towards this goal, maintaining existing power relationships - between rich and poor, white and black, male and female - and implying that any attempt to change them would be either futile or obscene. Today, at the level of formal politics, this conservative tendency most obviously takes the form of the desire to ‘roll back' the welfare state - to reduce the power of state institutions to intervene on the public's behalf in the economic and social spheres - while retaining the powers of government to protect private property and criminalise dissidents. At the level of everyday culture, it can take the form of an amorphous mistrust of politics in general, and a casual belief that things work better if people are largely left to ‘run their own affairs'. It is just such a general rejection of politics itself which Boris has tapped in to.

Boris and celebrity capitalism

Anti-political sentiments tend to be bound up with a belief in the power of individuals and a concomitant scepticism about the power of collectives - be they nations, villages, or organisations - to achieve anything much. At the level of popular culture, its obvious manifestation is an obsession with the doings of celebrities: those pure ‘personalities' whose notable achievements in any meaningful field are negligible. Famous for ‘being themselves', contemporary celebrities appear to make few compromises with the everyday demands of collective or civic life; let alone the commitments that working in groups demands of scientists, nurses, builders or even serious actors.

At the same time, the producers of reality TV shows go to great lengths to convince audiences that living together is impossible, and that competitive, selfish values naturally dominate all human relations. They fall over themselves to prevent or subvert attempts at co-operation when these emerge in contexts like the Big Brother House or the Young Mums' Mansion, and they demonstrate a relentless invention in the introduction of arbitrary mechanisms and carefully-selected sociopaths to situations where any ordinary group of people would just figure out a way to discuss things and get on with the job of living together. The implicit message is clear: don't believe in democracy, collectivity, or society; realise instead that the natural state for human beings is the mind-set of a neurotic, cocaine-addicted TV producer, whose colleagues of today will be tomorrow's competitors for the next 6-month contract with Endemol.

Like it or not, these have been the defining cultural phenomena of our time. In this context, the belief that commerce and competition are the only legitimate sources of authority, and that fame and personal charm are the only real measures of value, is bound to thrive. Without any countervailing cultural force, the chief criterion for winning Big Brother - possession of a distinctive and likeable TV persona - starts to inform voters' attitudes in selecting candidates, while "being political" comes to seem both incompetent and inherently untrustworthy. Within this universe of values, Boris Johnson appears as the one honest man: unashamed of his lack of principle, contemptuous of the whole political process, indifferent to the public distaste for racist language (although Boris the mayor, as distinct from Boris the candidate, is sensitive enough to this issue to have appointed a black deputy already).

Unembarrassed by the personal privileges which he has exploited so effectively since leaving Eton, Johnson presented himself explicitly as a celebrity who had achieved little of substance and promised more of the same: his editorship of The Spectator, his most significant real achievement to date, was hardly one of the points on which he sold his candidacy to the voters of Bexley, and nor was his policy-light manifesto. Boris' persona resonates with the sense that politics itself is a futile circus, that collective action is impotent, that media notoriety and personal wealth are the only really effective forms of power in contemporary culture.

However, this is not a situation which can simply be laid at the door of the evil ‘Media', because the government itself has been sending out much the same message throughout the tenure of New Labour. Even in recent months, Brown's self-defeating promotion of figures such as Digby Jones, Alan Sugar and David Pitt-Watson has manifested precisely this set of assumptions. More fundamentally, New Labour's attacks on the core values of the public sector and its efforts to commercialise and privatise public services all work to reinforce the idea that the world of commerce, with its emphasis on competition and profit, is a fit model for every possible sphere of human endeavour and interaction. The PFI programme, foundation hospitals, city academies, retreats from collective pay bargaining and the massive outsourcing of various strands of service delivery all point in this one direction.

Indeed, such policies do not only imply that the values of the market are the only values that matter; they actively make this true by forcing public servants to play by commercial rules even when they do not want to and when their clients derive no obvious benefit from them doing so. In the process, relationships between service ‘users' and ‘providers' are re-engineered on the assumption that such relations must be inherently antagonistic, that only market disciplines can protect the interests of ‘consumers' from the lazy, self-serving ‘producer interests' (i.e. public sector professionals).

How can government and politicians expect to be trusted when they organise their entire policy agenda according to the assumption that all other public servants are untrustworthy? Johnson's victory surely emerges from this matrix of assumptions. His persona resonates with these beliefs because of his unashamed privilege and contempt for the post-Macpherson anti-racist orthodoxy. Surely the reason the Tory leadership allowed Johnson - widely regarded as a political liability - to run at all, was that they recognised this, if only on an unconscious level (so much of politics, like the other expressive arts, is about intuition, inspiration and unconscious genius).

In voting for Johnson, some must experience the pleasure of letting go of their lingering resentments against the privileged caste to which he belongs and they never will. In doing so, they assent - blissfully - to the anti-political world view, according to which we shouldn't worry at all about such issues as social justice, elite power, the divide between the publicly and the privately educated, the persistent realities of racism. To ignore the social politics of a figure like Johnson is a self-permission to accept that nothing can be done to alter a society which produces such anomalies,to stop worrying and get on with the business of running up credit-card debts.

The message that we don't have to bother with politics, that it's frustrations and compromises merely mask an empty reality in which individuals struggle for personal gain - just as they do in the workplace and on the high street - is comforting for people who can no longer relate to the idea of a positive public realm. The seductive message of Boris, the insouciant adventurer who finally made Ken seem earnest, however effective: don't worry, it's all nonsense, just have a laugh, have a drink and go shopping.

At the same time, for some a vote for Boris clearly meant a vote ‘for change', however unspecified. Again, it's an easy mistake simply to dismiss this as a generic effect of disillusion with Labour, or the consequence of the Evening Standard's relentless anti-Ken headlines. Clearly these factors played a role, as did opposition to Ken's radical cosmopolitanism, and the anti-immigration rhetoric of the BNP. But it is more important to understand this apparently empty vote ‘for change' as a protest against the apparent impotence of the kind of democratic politics which Ken has come to represent, expressed in the anti-political values embodied by Boris.

Ken himself then compounded his vulnerability by failing to renew or articulate what had been his hallmark. Instead he traded on his "experience", presenting himself to voters as a safe pair of managerial hands rather than as a campaigner for their collective empowerment. As a result, voter turn-out in those areas which backed him was significantly lower than in those which backed Boris. The enthusiasm with which suburban voters rejected the idea of themselves as cosmopolitan Londoners with a stake in the democratisation of society was not matched by any equivalent defence of this ideal by those with the greatest stake in it. Livingstone had made no obvious effort to mobilise such a constituency; but if he had tried, there is no reason to assume that he would have failed.

The Realities of Power

Overall then, a deplorable situation. Government and media elites collude to produce a culture which generates disdain for real politics and a veneration for irreverent celebrities. Mayor Boris is the result. But is that the end of the story? Here is where I want to depart from the chorus of voices on the ‘centre-left' who have bemoaned the devaluation of politics in recent years. For while bodies like Demos, the Fabian Society, the IPPR and the Power Commission have produced reports diagnosing and deploring this state of affairs, they have almost entirely missed the central point. What most of these documents have in common is a narrative which blames government for failing to engage the citizenry, or sections of the public for failing to engage with politics. Incompetence on the part of government and bad faith on the part of journalists seem to be the usual imagined culprits. But major cultural shifts do not happen merely because of bad faith and incompetence. They happen also because someone, somewhere benefits.

The legitimacy of politics itself has been undermined from within and without, to the point where the most effective progressive politician of his generation can be defeated at the ballot box by a figure better known for his punch-lines than his policies. Who gains? The right-wing press, perhaps the most biased and under-regulated in the ‘free' world, which New Labour has not made the slightest move to check after 11 years in power, is one clear winner. The other, most importantly, is the super-rich elite of ‘non-doms', city bonus-earners, PFI-profiteers and public-school alumni, tied together by their involvement with key financial institutions, corporate media and the speculative property market. What would be required to work against this array of interests would be something much more than a few well-meaning voter-participation initiatives, but the rebuilding of social forces strong enough to challenge corporate power.

A society which lacks a strong labour movement - another situation which a Labour government has done nothing to remedy - also lacks a strong sense of collective empowerment and political possibility. It will need a revival of democracy, a genuine attempt to reconfigure and reinvent local government, trade-unionism and political participation for the 21st century, to reverse the trend which has so demeaned the very idea of democracy in contemporary culture. But such an effort could only be meaningful if it was led by politicians who recognised the obstacles such a project faces, and the fierce conflict with powerful vested interests which it would require. With the defeat of Livingstone, we have lost the last prominent British politician who understood this political reality.

Despite narrowly losing his election, Livingstone did much better at the polls than the Labour Party nationally, which suffered massive defeats in local elections across the country on the same day. He remains the most popular and successful radical politician of his generation, and Johnson beat him in part because he was even more populist, irreverent, outspoken and seemingly-authentic than Ken became in his last, more diplomatic years. The implication is clear: at least among the crucial swing constituencies of Southern England, the kind of ponderous self-righteousness embodied by Gordon Brown, his presbyterian purposefulness barely concealing his deference to hedge-fund managers and media moguls - is unlikely to convince anybody of anything. On the other hand, an uncowed populist Labour leader, willing to tell people the truth - that corporate profits do not equal social benefits - might yet be able to capture the imagination of voters as Johnson did last week.

The way to engage with the anti-political ‘common-sense' which has brought Johnson to power is not to preach about the virtues of civic participation: it is to acknowledge that in fact the public is right to disengage from a process which does not offer it any scope for meaningful participation. Politics today is thoroughly corrupted, and democracy is often a meaningless sham, because those charged with administering it will not defend it from the encroaching power of corporations, commercial media and US militarism. We need politicians with the nerve to admit this, and to take on the vested interests which maintain this state of affairs. Only then will the voting public start taking them seriously again.

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