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London chooses colorful Conservative as its mayor

A Labor incumbent is out and a lawmaker known for his jibes and bumbling persona is in.

May 03, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Londoners threw out their liberal two-term mayor Friday in favor of colorful Conservative politician Boris Johnson in municipal balloting in Britain that handed the governing Labor Party its worst local elections defeat since the 1960s.

The outcome puts a 43-year-old lawmaker best known for his irreverent jibes and disheveled mop of blond hair at the helm of one of Europe's preeminent cities and host of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

"I do not for one minute believe that this election shows that London has been transformed overnight into a Conservative city," Johnson said. "But I do hope that it does show that the Conservatives have changed into a party that can again be trusted after 30 years with the greatest, most cosmopolitan . . . city on Earth."

The voting, a combination of voters' first and second preferences, gave Johnson 1,168,738 votes, to incumbent Ken Livingstone's 1,028,966.

Johnson, a former magazine editor and classics scholar, became widely popular across Britain as a result of his humorous appearances on a popular TV news quiz show; he is famous for riding around London on his bicycle while talking on his mobile phone.

"Just as I will never vote to ban hunting, so I will never vote to abolish the free-born Englishman's time-hallowed and immemorial custom, dating back as far as 1990 or so, of cycling while talking on a mobile," he wrote when a law was proposed banning the practice.

Johnson reined in his mischievous side in a largely subdued campaign in which he called for cracking down on the capital's burgeoning youthful gun and knife crime, scrapping the unpopular articulated buses he calls "18-meter-long socialist frankfurter buses," and canceling a planned charge of $50 a day for drivers of high-carbon-emissions vehicles entering the central city.

Still, many Londoners are put off by his bumbling, buffoon-like persona. "He's like a clown . . . he's an absolute joke," said Jim O'Hagen, 19.

Johnson said he would move to allay voters' concerns. "I know there will be many whose pencils hovered for an instant before putting an X in my box," he said. "I will work flat out to regain and to justify your confidence."

In turning out Livingstone, a fixture in London leftist politics since the 1970s, voters joined a tide across England and Wales that saw the Labor Party lose 331 of more than 3,900 local council seats up for grabs, slipping to third place by receiving just 24% of the votes cast, behind the Conservatives, with 44%, and the Liberal Democrats, with 25%. The remaining votes were split among several smaller parties.

Losing the mayoralty of London and its 7.2 million residents to the Conservatives for the first time since the post was created in 2000 was a significant symbolic blow to the ruling party. Analysts said the victory would give the Tories a valuable platform from which to challenge Labor in the next national elections, expected probably in 2010.

The balloting was widely seen as a dismal referendum on the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose support has ebbed as Britain has slipped toward an economic downturn and voters have grown increasingly anxious over higher costs for housing, food, transport and taxes.

"There's been mistakes made by the national party who are in government, and as local councilors, you take the flak," said Phil Mould, head of the Labor Party in the central English county of Redditch, a Labor Party stronghold for the better part of 25 years that fell to the Conservatives.

Brown, who was facing his first elections as party leader after taking over from longtime Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair less than a year ago, conceded that they had not gone as the party had hoped.

"It's clear to me that this has been a disappointing night, indeed a bad night for Labor," Brown said Friday, as the results of Thursday's balloting flowed in. "We have lessons to learn from that, and then we will move forward."

Tory leader David Cameron said the election results were not only a rejection of Brown's government but a voice of support for Conservative policies.

"This is a very big moment for the Conservative Party, but I don't want anyone to think that we would deserve to win an election just on the back of a failing government," he said. "I want us to really prove to people that we can make the changes they want to see."

Some analysts cautioned against reading too much into Labor's dismal showing. Twice during midterm elections under Blair's leadership, the party plunged as low as 26% to 28% of the vote but recovered with big general election wins, said George Jones, professor emeritus of government at the London School of Economics.

Still, Brown's leadership remains an obstacle, Jones said.

"Whereas Mr. Blair was a superb communicator, something like Bill Clinton, whose presence and speeches could inspire and make people feel good and optimistic, Mr. Brown whenever he speaks looks morose and miserable, and he spreads a mood of misery and pessimism," he said. "I think the Labor Party feel, 'We've made a mistake.' "

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Thea Chard contributed to this report.

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