The Independent London Newspaper
26th April 2019

ILLTYD HARRINGTON: Our capital needs a real figurehead

    Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone

    Mayor of London Boris Johnson, and former mayor Ken Livingstone

    Published: 7 July, 2015

    LABOUR’S mayoral circus has rolled into town… and from what I have read and heard, it lacked confidence, buoyancy and challenge. 

    There were no lion-tamers. London stood firmly behind Labour at the general election in May. Now why the timidity? At least three of them are unrepentant Blairites. That takes a lot of neck. Is it acceptable to stand for parliament and then within weeks seek alternative employment? Are any of these contenders aware of a profound social crisis in London? 

    The capital faces accelerating social polarisation, low wages, high prices, crippling rents, and transport fares at a maximum – all of which is leading to an exodus of the young further out to the periphery. Some people spend a third of their weekly wage on rent. Would-be Mayors of London ought to be a little tougher than some of this lot who are looking for an escape route to richer pastures.

    The job is a killer if done properly. There has been a rise in population to eight million residents. 

    This cannot be absorbed in these days of austerity. It has to be faced. Many Labour parliamentarians regard London as over-subsidised, with no problems of poverty. I now feel free to look at the calibre of some of those on Labour’s shortlist. 

    Dame Tessa Jowell was lady in waiting to Tony Blair and introduced him to Silvio Berlusconi! Two of the others bear the hallmarks of the Blairite faction, which has not given up its wheeling and dealing in private. 

    Diane Abbott worked in the Greater London Council press department, but her bottle of syrup, saccharin and honey is now shared on the couch with Michael Portillo on This Week. I find it indigestible. 

    Sadiq Khan was very close to Ed Miliband and is now the subject of a whispering campaign about his “lack of energy”. 

    London needs a figurehead. Ken Livingstone managed to catch the moment. Boris Johnson’s self-portrait of a moth-eaten teddy bear is soon coming to an end. In other cities of the world outstanding characters have put themselves forward. I once bumped into Norman Mailer in an all-night store in Brooklyn, New York. The author of The Naked and the Dead ran for mayor of the city and did remarkably well. 

    A city leader needs zest, imagination, boundless energy and sincere connection with the voters. Alas, Labour in London has no brass bands, majorettes or carnival; although an essential part of modern politicking is that the identity of the candidates and the community is synchronised. Lead, rather than follow: Fight for rent control, and challenge the immorality of empty properties remaining empty for 10 months in a year. Londoners are very tolerant but public services are a flashpoint. The mayor has to be shown that he knows where the problems are and is searching for quick solutions. 

    City Hall and the Mayor’s Office have enormous potential to energise. It should not be a political refugee camp, particularly now that even the Conservatives are understanding that local government is the best catalyst for effective change in problem areas. London has a profound sentimental value to those who live there. They used to sing songs about it. Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner, or Noël Coward’s poignant London Pride has been handed down to us. It seems there is now more life in a gospel-singing marquee. 

    Let us never forget that the peasant’s revolt leader, Wat Tyler, was murdered by the Lord Mayor. The left better realise that the right gets its act together quicker. 

    A sad comment on the neglect of local government occurred last week when the newly-elected Canterbury Borough Council could not assemble enough members to hold a meeting.

    Leave the last word to that St Pancras Vestryman, George Bernard Shaw, who you would not have described as a muscular specimen. Shaw was introduced to the exotic dancer Isadora Duncan, who suggested to the great man of letters that they should have a child together: “It would be a miracle – your brain and my body”. Shaw, unabashed, replied: “But what if it got my body and your brain?” 

    A moral for ambitious politicians.