While counting continues in the London mayoral contest, the ruling Labour Party has suffered a massive defeat elsewhere in council elections in England and Wales. As of midday Friday, British time, the Conservatives had taken 44 per cent of the votes with the Liberal Democrats on 25 per cent and Labour relegated to third place with just 24 per cent. The margin of defeat is significant as it is similar to the watershed defeat of John Major’s Tory Government in the 1995 council elections just two years before he was voted out of office. If these results are repeated in the next general election which must happen by mid 2010, the Conservatives would win a landslide victory of about 150 seats under Britain’s crude first-past-the-post electoral system.
The London mayoral election is one of the few British elections that uses proportional representation and this is the main reason why it is proving so hard to call. Labour maverick Ken Livingstone is seeking a third term in office since he won the resurrected mayoralty in 2000. Livingstone was also mayor of the Greater London Council in the 1980s until it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher. Livingstone has always been to the left of his party and has been a constant thorn in the side of his own national leadership. But he can take credit for the successful congestion charge policy that has cut traffic by a fifth in the capital though has not yet impacted air quality.
Livingstone’s opponent this time is a fellow maverick. He is 43 year old Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, more plainly known as Boris Johnson. Johnson is an MP, a journalist and TV personality with chaotic blond hair and a shambling, jokey image. Educated in the classics at Eton and Oxford, he worked his way through the journalist ranks to become editor of The Spectator in 1999. He was elected Tory MP for Henley-on-Thames in 2001 after the retirement of Michael Heseltine. He became a shadow minister in 2004 but was sacked that same year for lying about a sexual affair. He won a place back in the shadow cabinet a year later and this time held onto it despite allegations of another affair, this time with Times journalist Anna Fazackerley.
Johnson resigned his post in July 2007 when he announced his decision to stand for London Mayor. After comfortably winning the Tory party nomination, he announced in typical flamboyant style that "King Newt's days are numbered," alluding to Livingstone's hobby of keeping newts in a garden pond. Significantly Johnson has dropped his opposition to the congestion charges in an effort for voters to take him seriously as a candidate. He has also concentrated his campaign on London’s more populous outer suburbs while Livingstone prefers to court the more trendy inner suburbs.
Johnson’s gamble may now have paid off with a final exit poll showing he has won a narrow victory. A YouGov survey suggested that Johnson was six percentage points ahead of Livingstone with low profile Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick a distant third. Many analysts had predicted Paddick’s preferences would decide the election but if the YouGov result is accurate, Johnson will win outright. The final result will be announced later today, British time.
The result will be another shattering blow to the tattered regime of Gordon Brown. With results from 100 out of 159 local councils officially announced, the Conservatives had won 45, Labour 14 and the Liberal Democrats six. The remainder were not controlled by any single party. Speaking this morning, Brown blamed his party’s poor performance on the effects of the global credit crunch on Britain. But while his party has been dogged by scandals, poor polls and dissent over tax and anti-terrorism laws, his position as Prime Minister remains safe for now.
Writing on his BBC blog site, Nick Robinson says that despite the results, there is no clamour among Labour MPs for a change of leader. However he says that the Tory’s most successful election result since John Major surprisingly won the 1992 election (despite polls suggesting he would lose to Neil Kinnock’s Labour) means that “something drastic” needs to happen to prevent David Cameron from defeating Brown in the next election. The only advice Robinson has for Brown is: “he will simply have to hope that - in the words of the old election song - things can only get better”. This election song is of little comfort to Brown, and in the context of current worldwide economic conditions, highly unlikely to be sung.