No show for BoJo

When American student Clarissa Bottesini watched London's mayoral candidates do battle at a hustings

If there was a mantra at the mayoral hustings at the University of London Union (ULU) just a week before the UK capital goes to the polls it was “keep Boris out" - not hugely difficult at this event because Johnson, the Conservative candidate, didn't even make it to the debate.

Wannabe Tory MP Mark Clarke, Boris's stand-in for the night, informed the primarily student audience that they would have to do without the blond mop top because he had a prior engagement.

Clarke pointed out Boris had spoken at two other student union events already before going on to paint what Labour's Ken Livingstone would later describe as the "doom and gloom" picture of London.

Clarke told the students he would not “patronise” them by treating them as a special interest group. Then after pledging to avoid "gimmicky policies" he proceeded to insist Boris was a “serious player” who would build them homes when they graduate. He also described buses as threatening places that teenagers use to hang out in and said Ken should not be voted into office because he is old and tired.

Livingstone's opening remarks characterised Boris as the man “in the corner of the pub” who whinges about everything, saying the world is “all awful and we're all going to hell”. He also reminded the audience Johnson was the only candidate who supported the War in Iraq.

The current mayor then said that young people come to London more than any other city because it is dynamic and multicultural.

The Boris bashing continued apace when questions were taken from the audience. In response to a question on tackling racism, Mark Clarke's only suggestion seemed to be firing Lee Jasper - who quit as Livingstone's chief race adviser in March.

Lindsey German – the Left List candidate – strongly disagreed with the Tory call while Lib Dem and ex-top cop Brian Paddick argued out as there is no investigation into Jasper, Clarke should withdraw his comments.

A question related to “wasting votes” if you vote for a party other than the frontrunning Labour or Conservatives, prompted the majority of the candidates to explain the two round voting process and give tips about how to keep the Tory out of office.

“You don't need to worry about who you vote for in the first round as long as it's not Boris,” said Green Party candidate and New Statesman blogger Sian Berry.

The few Boris supporters (is that Borisites?) attacked Ken for being an anti-semite because of a controversial cartoon he ran in a magazine he used to edit back in the early 1980s at the time of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It was a charge that Livingstone roundly rejected.

That aside, the majority of students seemed largely up-in-arms against the Conservative - absent or otherwise. The other candidates' attitude towards Mark Clarke made him seem increasingly embattled as the meeting wore on. He was clearly flustered as his opponents urged students over and over to vote for anyone but Boris and the BNP on 1 May.

The Guardian’s online political editor Deborah Summers chaired the debate but struggled to keep the crowd under control as they cheered, booed, laughed and shouted attacks of “liar” and “anti-semite”. At times it was hard for candidates to get their points across amid the heckling.

Brian Paddick said certain night bus routes need officers to improve safety and that he wants to give free travel on public transportation to all undergraduates. He also talked about students being exploited by private sector landlords. He also told students that, "if someone can't turn up to speak to you I think you need to ask “why is that?”

Sian Berry called students “the greenest people in London” and spoke about students’ financial struggle and her proposed 20p fare cut for public transport. She pushed her goal of the living wage and free insulation for housing, but said that she urged her supporters to vote for Ken as a second choice in case she is not elected.

Lindsey German denounced child poverty and said that the Labour government should be narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor. She also said talked about student debt before warning that “Boris would be a disaster for London.”

Although there was no clear winner in the debate, it was clear who lost – the man from the pub with the blond hair who thinks London is a hellish place to live.

As an American student who has never attended such an inflamed debate before and who is used to the sanitised version of the American political scene, the whole event was a refreshing surprise. Here there was no hint of deference to the candidates and students were not barred from speaking their peace. There were no police wielding Tasers and handcuffs as was the case in September of last year at the John Kerry event at the University of Florida.

It was just a shame we were deprived of the bumbling Boris charm. I wonder if he would have held his own any better than Mark - I guess we will never know considering he wasn't there.