May 8, 2008

May 8, 2008 | Commentary on Europe

London drama

You can call him Red Ken -- or the canary in the coalmine of British Labor politics. On Friday, that canary took a nosedive from its perch, when the citizens of London voted out Ken Livingstone as mayor of London after eight years in office. His part of the worst local election showing for the Labor Party in 40 years. It reflects just how fast and how far the party's fortunes have sunk under Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

While this was Labor's worst performance in 40 years, it was the best for the Conservatives since 1992. The Conservatives took 44 percent of the national vote; Labor came in even behind the Liberal Democrats with 24 percent. Had this been a national election for Parliament, the Tories would have come away with an over 100 seat majority. Unfortunately, it was not, but Labor members have not surprisingly started wondering whether Mr. Brown is the right man to lead them into the next election.

Meanwhile, back in London, the voters said goodbye to Mr. Livingstone, one of the most controversial far left figures in British politics - and hello to Boris Johnson. The job of mayor of London is Britain's most powerful elected position, as most political constituencies are much smaller. This may be what produced a contest of more flamboyant candidates than usual. The two main candidates for the job could hardly have been more different, but do share if anything a flair for publicity. It is of course true that eccentricity is hardly considered a drawback by the British, the nation that gave the world Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Mr. Livingstone, age 62, has been a communist fixture on the London City Council for what seems like an eternity. He is an old-fashioned Laborite, no fan of the Tony Blair school of New Labor politicians. His most famous "achievement" was the introduction of the London commuter tax, which aimed to cut down congestion, but made traveling into London by car outrageously expensive for ordinary commuters. He also created the London Climate Change Agency and championed gay rights, creating a partnership registry for same sex couple. He failed, however to deal with the problem of crime, and left the London suburbs feeling neglected.

Mr. Johnson is a media personality, journalist and novelist, with a penchant for outrageous remarks - having apparently promised, among other things, that a vote for the Tories will "cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3." Of Turkish descent and until recently a U.S. citizen having been born in New York, he's Member of Parliament for Henley, an Etonian and a former president of the Oxford Union. The Daily Telegraph described Mr. Johnson's appearance as "a carefully cultivated shambles," a "booming cross between Bertie Wooster and a loud public school boy." Mr. Johnson, however, proved no fool and fought a well-run campaign. He has promised Londoners tireless work on their behalf once in office.

The problems of the Labor Party date beyond Mr. Brown's tenure as a prime minister, which started less than a year ago. Tory leader David Cameron, who cleverly drafted Mr. Johnson for the London's mayor's race, has a lot to do with it. Labor's fortunes were in decline during the end of the Tony Blair era. Mr. Brown also has had a lot to do with the decline, and must have had the shortest honeymoon in office of any politician. It ended with a crash when he decided to call of planned national elections in November for the obvious reason that Labor would have lost. He also rejected a promised national referendum on the European Union's new constitutional document, the Lisbon treaty, for which he is now being sued in court by a wealthy businessman.

Particularly interesting from an American perspective is the fact that while Mr. Brown has shown himself to be a somewhat reluctant and sourpuss ally of the United States, Tory leader David Cameron has been making efforts to mend fences with Washington. The dour approach to Washington has clearly not improved Labor's fortunes, nor have the closer ties hurt those of the Conservatives. Thus it is with some encouragement that one concludes that either British anti-Americanism is not as powerful as assumed, or it matters less to voters than local and national issues. Who knows, maybe the "special relationship," which Mr. Brown has banned from the lexicon of British diplomacy, will even make a reappearance under the next government.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Europe

First appeared in the Washington Times