Could you vote for Boris?

Ken shouldn’t have another turn as mayor of London just because he’s the Labour candidate.

One morning in May 2008 I walked in to the office to find a scene of quiet desolation. Colleagues barely looked up, long faces fixed on their computer screens. Nary a smile was to be seen nor a gay word to be heard that day, for the long-feared catastrophe had duly come to pass. Yes, Boris Johnson had been elected Mayor of London.

It seems that my co-workers took the same view as the Guardian which, in an unintentionally hilarious edition, warned of the terrible dangers to the capital if the Tory MP and Telegraph columnist were to eject Ken Livingstone from "the glass testicle", as City Hall is known.

"Boris Johnson in the role of mayor would feel like being trapped on the set of The Wizard of Oz minus the soundtrack and the Technicolor," said Bonnie Greer, in yet another of her wise and pithy observations that so enrich the commentary of our nation, while Arabella Weir declared: "I will go on hunger strike and throw myself in front of the next horse at Ascot if he wins."

Yet Big Ben still stands, the ravens have not flown the Tower of London, the rubbish is collected with the same regularity from outside my home in Camden, and preparations appear to be on track for what we are exhorted to regard as a great symbol of civic pride, though I prefer to think of it as a useless drain on the public purse: the 2012 Olympics. Oh, and fortunately Ms Weir still lives, too.

Having Boris in charge has not been the disaster many predicted, but it is already being painted as such now that Labour has selected its candidate for the next mayoral election. Perhaps anticipating that he would defeat Oona King for the nomination, Ken Livingstone has already been training his fire on his successor since launching his campaign in June.

Now many may expect the New Statesman to support Ken's campaign; and perhaps the magazine will when our one-time guest editor comes to battle it out with Boris. But if so, it should be for the right reasons -- which were notable by their absence in the whipped-up furore about the possibility of Boris winning last time.

The main arguments then were: he was an Old Etonian; he had a plummy voice; over the course of thousands of columns he'd made a few comments that could be taken out of context and presented as serious statements (instead of the jokes they actually were) in order to "prove" that he was a racist; and, er, he was a Tory.

The first two are true, but I fail to see how they disqualify him, unless one takes the view that discriminating against someone on the basis of their class background is acceptable. (Surely not -- imagine the outrage if anyone suggested Ken's education at Tulse Hill Comprehensive was a reason not to vote for him.) I don't believe for a minute that Boris, who is of Turkish extraction and whose mother-in-law is Indian, is racist. (He may be guilty of stereotyping for comic effect, but he is an equal opportunities disher-out of cheery abuse.) And yes, he is a Tory.

If this is really all it came down to -- not: what kind of a Tory is he? What will he do for London? How successful has he been at running an organisation before? -- then it was all mere tribalism. Pathetic, narrow-minded, self-interested, self-absorbed tribalism. Alas, I fear it was. None of the people I spoke to who were sunk in gloom the day after Boris's victory could point to any particular dreadful consequence that they feared. It was just that he was a Tory, and therefore it was a terribly BAD THING that he had been elected.

In fact, a mayoral candidate's party affiliation isn't necessarily the point at all, as Ken Livingstone knows well. He won the first mayoral election, remember, as an independent after New Labour stitched up the internal selection process to ensure he wasn't their candidate. We have more than enough party politics in the capital, what with the London Assembly and our councils, most members of which do indeed owe their positions to their advertised political attachments. But a directly elected mayor is bigger than party.

What is important is the individual and the sentiment they inspire in the cities they run. Do I feel safe, and that my neighbourhood is well policed? Are the streets clean? Are the local services of a good standard (such as the excellent community libraries near me in Chalk Farm and Belsize Park, both of which Labour tried to close down last time it was in power in Camden)? Does London feel like it's thriving, while taking care to ensure that the old, the needy, the sick and the poor are not only provided for, but cherished?

No matter that some of the above are not in the mayor's purview. A great mayor sets the tone for a city, for good or ill. You may prefer an Ed Koch to a Rudy Giuliani, but either way you know what kind of New York they represented. (By contrast, does anyone even remember the name of David Dinkins? And how many of us could correctly identify which parties the three former mayors belonged to?)

Having said that it is about the individual, there may be some who do object to Boris's accent, his hair, his humour, etc. Fair enough -- though it would be hard to make the case for why such attributes should count seriously in an election. What matters is how he, or anyone else, can do the job. There will undoubtedly be millions of Londoners who think that Ken would make a better mayor than Boris, possibly sufficient for Livingstone to return to the office that his lifetime in politics led up to.

So do, indeed, vote for Ken when the time comes, should you wish. But do so because Ken is Ken, not because he wears a Labour rosette, just as many voted for Boris because of who he was, not because he was a Tory. If that were all that counted, then the proverbial donkey could end up winning the mayoral election.

There is precedent, of a sort, for this -- the emperor Caligula infamously wanted to make his favourite horse, Incitatus, one of Rome's two consuls. But I hardly think his is an example we would want to follow today. This is a case where the political should not be tribal, of either the equine or the bovine variety, but personal.


Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era