OPINION: London becomes presidential prize

The battle of London is turning into an engaging, not to say entertaining, clash between the two key protagonists - just as expected.

Luke Blair
Luke Blair

You cannot put two giant personalities such as Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone into a political amphitheatre, even one as large as London, without a lot of fireworks, fluster and flak. 

No wonder Brian Paddick resorted to cross-dressing analogies when challenged about being a 'suit' (he said it would be odd if he turned up in a dress). He is simply struggling to be heard above the noise of the two big beasts battling it out beside him for pole position on 1 May.

All of which makes an interesting point about London, versus national, politics. For in London, the cult of the personality is all. Forget national policy, the Conservative or Labour agenda. In a structure like the Greater London Authority and Assembly, all the key decisions revolve around a single person - as Livingstone has made clear when accused of 'cronyism'.

He said it was precisely this structure that has enabled the mayoralty to drive through bold ideas such as the congestion charge, low emission zone, a higher tax on 4x4s and, shortly, much more swingeing planning powers.

This is a reflection of London itself, a City above all devoted to individualism. It is reflected in the way the big political issues arise - created and driven through by dint of sheer personality, not via some dry, smoke-filled policy-making forum behind closed doors (although these days it would be more 'smoke-free').

It follows that in Johnson's recent crime manifesto, the word 'Conservative' appears only once. Similarly, ask yourself how many of Livingstone's policies have to be passed across Gordon Brown's desk before seeing the light of day?

London has, in essence, a presidential system, with all the power, glory and opprobrium centred on a single person. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain would presumably fare well over here.

And yet it is interesting to note that when a US mayor with a huge personality, who stood up to terrorism and led New York through a combination of personal vision and charm, ran for national election, as Rudy Giuliani did, he lasted no time at all and fell at the first hurdle.

Luke Blair is a director at London Communications Agency 

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