Boris v Ken: the first debate

Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone debated on the same platform yesterday at the Age UK London mayoral election hustings, the first time they have met since 2008. It was hardly a “spanking,” as one excitable Ken groupie panted. But it was, as the Standard’s Peter Dominiczak put it, a points victory for Ken.

Does that matter? Yes and no. In the real place that mattered – on television – the encounter was soundbites even. Most hustings are the mayoralty’s Via Dolorosa, with the candidates performing the appropriate ritual genuflections at each Station of the Cross to a backdrop of wailing from whichever of London’s sectional lobby groups, sorry diverse’n’vibrant communities, has hired a hall that day. The activists at most of these events don’t have much in common with ordinary voters.

The way you get a clap at a hustings is by promising to give the audience whatever it wants – free money always goes down particularly well – and Ken, untroubled by the need to make the sums add up, is much better at this than Boris. So we had £150 off your heating bills, 7 per cent off your fares, free bike hire for the over-60s and a new spending pledge to install lifts at dozens more Tube stations. At £100 million per station for the deep ones, that will be a pretty expensive round of applause.

But today did give us hacks an idea of the candidates’ strengths, weaknesses and the attack lines which will echo through our dreams in the weeks ahead. Ken’s lines were tactically effective while worsening his key strategic weaknesses of profligacy, hypocrisy and nastiness. “This isn’t the Bullingdon Club you know, you can’t interrupt,” was one typically charming thrust. He said Boris had only put up transport fares because he was too busy doing his “other job,” as a weekly columnist for the Daily Telegraph, to make savings at TfL. “I live a normal life in this city, I have a normal home,” said Ken. “[The salary of] £140,000 a year for mayor, I got by on that. I had no trouble whatsoever. If you can’t live on £140,000,you must have a very interesting lifestyle, that’s all I can say.” [Laughter and applause.]

Ken’s income in the last year for which figures are available was £284,000.

He again blamed Boris for the riots, saying: “Why the riots broke out was [because] when the relatives of Mark Duggan [the alleged gangster shot by police] went to Tottenham police station, the [Met] Commissioner wasn’t there to see them, the mayor wasn’t there to see them, the deputy mayor wasn’t there to see them.” Let us just say that few people will agree with this view.

There were also fascinating signs of what Ken’s polls must be telling him are his vulnerabilities. The humility soundbite was played for the second time in two weeks  – he confessed to having made “mistakes” (sadly unspecified, but don’t expect them to include anything that matters.) He also insisted, for the second time in two weeks: “I don’t think I’ve ever lied to you.” With a list of brazen lies longer even than his list of Nazi-themed outbursts, I think that statement must be one of the mistakes, Ken!

Yesterday also showed us some of Boris’s weaknesses. For the moment, his strategic problem is that he hasn’t announced any major manifesto policies. It may simply be that he judges it to be too early – Ken has almost certainly gone too early on his fares cut – but the campaign proper is effectively starting now, and it will not be enough for Boris just to say how efficient he has been. Running on your record never works, as Ken found last time. We’ve had some themes – lowering council tax; yesterday there was mention of driverless Tube trains – but they haven’t been properly launched yet.

A decent sweetie for this audience – a pledge to stop a (Labour-inspired) plan to raise the starting age for the Freedom Pass above 60 – was effectively launched in the Standard and in the TV coverage but didn’t seem to get through to the crowd in the room.

I thought that there was also a tonal weakness. It was the second time I have seen Boris fail to read an audience recently – his speech at the annual City Hall press reception fell flat, and for the same reason, that some of his lines felt like they’d been written by other people: they were standard political attack lines, not quite his voice.

Boris certainly needs to attack Ken – God knows there’s enough there – but his gentle mockery can be more damaging than a sharply-pointed thrust. Line I liked most yesterday, on the new Routemaster and bringing back bus conductors (a Ken election commitment in 2000): “I not only keep my promises, I keep ones the previous mayor failed to keep.”

All this needs to be kept in perspective, though. The Boris line the hustings audience liked least – “You are a massive, profligate waster of public money” – played absolutely fine for the real audience, on TV.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s