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.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.