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Colorful race relieves London gray

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson couldn't be more different, or eccentric, but both want the mayor's seat.

May 01, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — One candidate, an old-line leftist-turned-globalizer known as Red Ken, called the U.S. ambassador to Britain a "chiseling little crook" and recently acknowledged fathering five children by three women.

The other, an upper-crust conservative with a shock of pale blond hair permanently askew, called the London Underground an "armpit-nuzzling hell" and said he tried cocaine during college but sneezed.

Is this any way to run a city?

London may think of itself as the new global economy's Wall Street and the most urbane of international capitals, but the only two men who have a prayer of running it after the mayoral election today quite often come off as loony and loonier.

Welcome to the Ken and Boris show. It is a contest that has focused as much on the issues as on the larger-than-life candidates who practically have been tripping over each other at down-and-out neighborhood youth centers and arguing about police deployments in public debates that, for once, the public is actually watching.

The reason is not just the general concern over lawless adolescents on street corners, the miserably crowded subways or two-bedroom apartments a millionaire couldn't afford. It's the candidates themselves -- a pair of eccentrics who couldn't be more different, neither of them one of the bland, measured, so very thoughtful politicians who seem to populate so much of the British political landscape these days.

Ken Livingstone, the 62-year-old Labor Party incumbent, is an only partly reformed veteran of the old, hard left, an inclination he has had to square with his responsibility for presiding over the creation of the world's leading banking and financial services center and, in the process, becoming a champion of multinational corporations and globalization.

He has opened the door to a rash of new skyscrapers in London while holding developers' feet to the fire to make 50% of the city's new housing affordable. He made a no-holds-barred successful appeal to bring the 2012 Summer Olympics to London, even while he was striking a deal with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to buy subsidized fuel for the capital's buses and planning a citywide celebration next year to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.

Boris Johnson, 43, is a lawmaker with the staid Conservative Party and former editor of the right-of-center Spectator magazine. He is a prankster who only pretends to be a buffoon -- he's a classics scholar and former Oxford debating society president who has a knack for the self-effacing quip that often does a good deal of collateral damage to whoever happens to be sitting straight-faced next to him on the podium.

A distant third in the 10-candidate field is Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick, an openly gay former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who refers to Johnson as a "clown," but who has taken flak for being soft on marijuana during his time with the police.

For all the quips and posturing, all three leading candidates are smart and fundamentally serious politicians with measurably divergent policy programs that could help determine whether London continues to thrive as a global financial capital or gets stuck in a quagmire of congestion, crime and ethnically divided communities that throttles the city's long economic boom.

At stake is more than the mayor's office and the $20.9-billion budget it controls.

Losing London to the Tories could be a devastating blow to the Labor Party, which is struggling to maintain its 11-year-long grip on power across Britain. Political analysts say the outcome could be determined less by who wants to do what for London than by whom Londoners like most -- or, framed the way most political conversations seem to go these days, whom they hate least.

"There's no question that personalities will play a part in this race, and were designed to. This is an American model of presidential politics that has been grafted onto the British body politic, and it was done by Tony Blair quite explicitly and deliberately," said Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, talking of the directly elected post, created in 2000, when Livingstone first won the position as an independent.

The two front-runners come down to the wire quite close in the polls, and with relatively equal loads of baggage. Livingstone launched a preemptive strike early last month, confessing before an expected news media expose that his offspring ("love children," the tabloids quickly called them) numbered several more than the two with his current partner.

"I don't think anybody in this city will be shocked by what two consenting adults do, as long as you don't include children, animals and vegetables," the mayor said defiantly.

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