London's Vaudeville act must cease

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have been a great double-act. London now needs the act to take its

Neither Boris Johnson nor Ken Livingstone are fit to lead London.

It's a shame, because their double act has been engaging. They developed a nice chemistry; each taking it in turns to be the straight man to the others clown.

But now we have no room for clowns. The world's greatest city needs serious leadership, not a vaudeville routine.

Ken Livingstone has lived his dream. He will always be London's first mayor. He may also prove to be its most iconic. "Red Ken" will forever be as a much a part of the capital as red telephone boxes and red double deckers.

But his time has gone. To look at him is to stare into the past. He is physically old, and slightly frail. But not as old and frail as his statements. A measured response to the riots could have been the making of his mayoral candidacy. Instead, he sullied it.

It wasn't just the cheapness and transparency of his politicking; the Conservatives, the cuts, Cameron. Nor the tasteless way he used the London bombings to frame his suitability for tackling the London riots. It wasn't even the crass stupidity and simplicity of his analysis; blame the bankers, EMA, the fact that 14 and 15 year old rioters are enraged at their inability to provide for their wives and children.

London needs unity. And Ken Livingstone is divisive. He cannot help himself; divide and conquer, opponents and supporters. It is his way. Try as he might he cannot embrace, only attack. He cannot bind, only drive apart. Ken looks for factions to nurture and manipulate, when what we need is someone who can bring London together.

But crass though Ken Livingstone's comments were, at least he was in a position to make them. Cometh the hour, cometh the man? That man was not Boris Johnson.

Hindsight is a great gift. But it does not require hindsight to understand that the mayor of a major western capital city needs to be at his post, and seen to be at his post, when major public disorder strikes.

Those asking what operational impact could Boris have had miss the point. While Londoners sat imprisoned in our homes, with that strange awareness that a call to 999 would go unanswered, what we were looking for was leadership -- a sense that someone was in control.

There was none. We had a void. It wasn't that the Mayor was asleep at his post. It's that he wasn't at his post at all.

Kit Malthouse is an eloquent mayoral spokesman. But no one voted for him -- they voted for Boris Johnson. And where was our mayor when his city needed him most? Absent without leave. He picked up his broom too late.

A crisis reveals the true metal of our leaders, and when the moment came, both prospective leaders of London were found wanting.

But in truth, that shouldn't really surprise us. Neither Ken Livingstone, nor Boris Johnson are leaders. Nor are they really politicians. They are characters, political entertainers, colorful personalities who leap out from the parade of the bland.

But leading London is not a game. Nor is it the prize awarded to the winner of a game of Celebrity Political Big Brother.

There are serious people in our country, and outside it, who have run things -- big things, like corporations, institutions and even cities. They know how to manage. To procure. To plan. To lead.

London needs that now. We need serious leadership, not symbolic or colorful leadership. The world's greatest city now needs great statesmanship.

I've loved the unkempt blond locks. And the newts. I laughed at the Beijing "ping-pong" speech, and at the audacity of calling for the Saudi Royal family to be hung from lamp posts. But quirky humour is no longer enough. Nor are free bus travel for under sixteens and community bicycles.

I want vision, I want drive, I want imagination. Above all, I want professionalism. Someone who will grab my city out of the hands of the rioters and the speculators and the city spivs and the gangsters, and give it back to the people who deserve it.

I don't care about the politics. I don't care if Labour wins in London, or if the Tories get a good hiding. All I care about now is that Londoners win in London.

I'll vote Tory. I'll vote Green. I'll vote independent. I still hope and pray I'll be able to vote Labour.

But I'm not helping place my city back into the hands of a clapped out revolutionary or an Etonian comic. Not after this week. Not ever again.

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have been a great double-act. London now needs the act to take its final bow.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Show Hide image

What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war