London Mayor election – Boris versus Ken

Does Livingstone offer a working class alternative?

Sean Figg

In this year’s London mayoral election, the personalities of the self-styled mavericks – current mayor Boris Johnson and former mayor Ken Livingstone – dominate. The London and national media play up the personal rivalry between Eton-educated Tory Boris and ‘Red Ken’ of the Labour Party.

Londoners face devastating attacks on jobs, services, pay and benefits. The capital is mired in a huge housing crisis and the NHS is being destroyed. The gap between rich and poor is at its starkest in the capital.

In these circumstances if Livingstone put forward an anti-cuts programme and a strategy to fight, it would inspire millions. He could romp home. George Galloway’s byelection victory in Bradford West has shown what mountains can be moved – a 5,000 Labour majority turned into a 10,000 majority for Galloway. Yet, incredibly, the mayoral candidates are reckoned to be neck and neck.

Despite the hatred working class Londoners have for Johnson they do not trust Livingstone to deliver. In a recent opinion poll, 68% said they supported Ken’s ‘Fare Deal’ policy, but only 44% thought he would implement it if elected. There is a feeling of “we’ve been here before”, that Livingstone’s words will not be matched by deeds.


Despite his buffoonish persona, Johnson is a danger to the working class. If there is anyone who he hates more than Livingstone, it is RMT transport union leader Bob Crow. In his manifesto, Johnson attacks Bob Crow twice by name!

In a deliberate snub and provocation, Johnson has refused to meet with the RMT leadership since getting elected. This probably explains his ‘confusion’ over Bob Crow and the RMT’s political affiliations.

In his manifesto, Johnson warns of “a return to Ken Livingstone, who will take London back to his waste, high taxes, broken promises and Bob Crow and his union cronies back at City Hall”.

But the RMT is not endorsing Ken for mayor and in fact, Bob Crow and the RMT are backing the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidates, including Socialist Party members, in the London-wide member list for the London Assembly elections held on the same day as the mayoral vote.

Unfortunately, Livingstone is not a reliable ally for the trade unions. He sees them as a ‘problem’ that he is more capable of ‘managing’ than Johnson. During a recent radio debate, Livingstone gave Johnson advice on how he would have held down pay claims from transport workers around the 2012 London Olympics.

He ranted at the current mayor: “Why on earth Boris did you leave it to this point when you’re in a weak position and the unions are strong? You should’ve done it [fixed pay] three years ago”.

Livingstone at least has a background in the labour and trade union movement. Given this, thousands of working class Londoners have been hugely disappointed by the recent exposure of Livingstone’s tax avoidance.

In 2009 he saved around £50,000 by placing earnings into a business, avoiding income tax and paying the lower rate corporation tax. This has undermined Livingstone’s claim that he stands for ordinary Londoners against the rich and allows Johnson to attack him for hypocrisy.

No difference?

The working and middle classes will face worsening attacks if Johnson’s mayoralty continues after 3 May. However, a return of Livingstone to City Hall would offer no defence because, when the broader situation is considered, there is little between the two on fundamental questions.

Both Livingstone and Johnson accept the idea that working class people should pay off the debts of the bankers through cuts to public spending. That Johnson would support this is no surprise. But Livingstone, again disappointing many, said in January that he agrees with Labour’s backing of the government’s public sector pay freeze.

Livingstone has even gone so far as to praise Labour leader Ed Miliband as a “visionary politician”. This is the same Ed Miliband who has said a future Labour government would not guarantee to reverse a single coalition spending cut!

Last year the central government grant to the Greater London Authority was reduced by 9%, around £618 million. There is no mention anywhere in either candidate’s manifesto about this massive cut.

However, Livingstone is putting forward some policies that will be attractive to many working class and young people. His headline policy – Fare Deal pledge – is to cut public transport fares by 7%, and restrict future increases.

Johnson, backed up by ‘experts’ in the city, has attacked this policy by raising the spectre of Greece! The ratings agency Moody’s has said the reduced income from a fare cut could lead to a downgrade of Transport for London’s credit rating, increasing the cost of borrowing and jeopardising investment and tube line upgrades.

Livingstone has said he will resign in October if he has not cut fares by then. But Livingstone’s Achilles’ heel will be his underlying acceptance of the system that makes cuts a ‘necessity’ which may ‘force’ him to bow to ‘reality’ in the face of sabotage by big business.

With no strategy to mobilise the working class of London to support his Fare Deal, Livingstone will be left isolated and the policy will be shipwrecked.

Livingstone also plans to introduce a London-wide Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for 16-19 year olds to replace the one scrapped by the coalition government last year.

On the major issue of affordable childcare, Livingstone proposes subsidising 200 private nurseries to offer increased out of hours places, grants toward the cost of childcare for 1,200 low-income families, and low interest loans for a further 10,000 families.

On housing he plans an all-London not-for-profit lettings agency, to undercut the parasitic extortion of the letting agents in the private-rented sector.

But these policies will not be funded by new money. Instead, existing money will be redeployed, all, of course, against the background of a diminishing pot overall.

The London EMA will be funded by pooling existing funds in colleges, universities and local authorities. This funding will not hold-up in the long term when all these sectors face funding cuts too.

When the cash runs out, only by building a mass movement – along the lines of the struggle around the socialist-led Liverpool council in the mid-1980s – will it be possible to secure the extra money necessary. Livingstone will not embark along this road.

His childcare grants and loans will only marginally blunt the financial cost of childcare. The GLA estimates that the average annual cost of full-time childcare in London is £10,000. The maximum yearly grant available is £700 and the maximum loan £1,000. These payments will be welcomed by the minority of families eligible for them, but it will remain a drop in the ocean for tackling this enormous problem.

A not-for-profit all-London letting agent would save people hundreds of pounds in inflated and unnecessary fees. But better still would be the introduction of rent caps in the private-rented sector. Even then, the underlying shortage of affordable housing in London has not been addressed.

Unfortunately, the strategy of building a mass movement to demand extra funding has never been Livingstone’s approach. This will lead to disappointment and frustration with his administration should he win.

In this election the best way to hold Livingstone to his promises is to elect a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition Assembly member in the London-wide Member list. Even just one workers’ representative in the Assembly would shake up London politics and be a platform – inside and outside City Hall – to build the mass movement of Londoners needed to fight back in the age of austerity.

Voters in London will get three ballot papers on 3 May.

  • The pink ballot paper is to elect the mayor. Electors can vote for two candidates in order of preference. TUSC is not standing for mayor.
  • The yellow ballot paper is to elect a Constituency London Assembly Member, in a first-past-the-post vote. London is divided into 14 multi-borough constituencies. Each constituency elects one Assembly member. TUSC is not standing in the constituencies.
  • The orange ballot paper is to elect the remaining eleven Assembly members – the London-wide Assembly Members – from party lists in a form of proportional representation. This is the ballot paper where you can vote for TUSC. This is the crucial vote – the one that gives us the chance to shake up the Assembly. If TUSC receives 5% of the vote the candidate at the top of the list will be elected.

TUSC Against Cuts

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition list for the London Assembly elections:

Alex Gordon, president of rail union RMT; Nick Wrack, TUSC national committee; April Ashley, Unison executive, representing black women members; Sian Griffiths, Fire Brigades Union chair of women’s committee; Steve Hedley, RMT London organiser; Ian Leahair, FBU national executive committee member for London; Gary McFarlane, Black activist and journalist; Martin Powell-Davies, executive member for Inner London of the teachers union NUT; Merlin Reader, postal worker and CWU London committee; Joe Simpson, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association; Jenny Sutton, lecturers union UCU executive; Nancy Taaffe, library worker made redundant, former chair Waltham Forest Unison; Jackie Turner, doctor; Lee Vernon, Young Members convenor for London of the civil service union PCS; Lesley Woodburn, Unite rep on southeast regional TUC LGBTQ committee; Mick Dooley, construction industry activist; Mark Benjamin, Black disabled PCS union activist.

Candidates are standing in a personal capacity