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Letter from London: A tale of two egos

The candidates for London's mayoral race offer voters two distinct brands to choose from. Neither are particularly appealing.

London mayoral election 2012 05 02Enlarge
Mayoral candidates Ken Livingstone (left) and Boris Johnson. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

LONDON — Voting is a private matter. How a journalist votes even more so, since we are supposed to be impartial and if the readers knew our political preferences they might find a bias in how we report the facts.

The former editor of The Washington Post, Len Downie, famously claimed that he didn't vote because he feared that the very act of choosing would compromise his impartiality.

Well, on the occasion of the London mayoral election, I am writing about the thinking that is going into my decision — not who I am going to vote for, I don't want you to detect any bias in my reporting — just puzzling through who will get my vote.

Politics is always about ego but the the London mayoral contest is a particularly pure example of this. It emphasizes ego more than other elective offices because the reality is the job doesn't come with many responsibilities. The Mayor of London doesn't have executive authority like New York's Mayor Mike Bloomberg who oversees a budget of $61 billion and has tax raising power to finance it. London's Mayor oversees a budget of £1.6 billion ($2.6 billion) and can't raise a shilling in tax.

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How is this possible, you ask? The answer: The city is divided into 32 boroughs, each with its own paid executive staff and civil servants and elected council. The councils raise the taxes and so hold the real political power.

The Mayor's primary executive authority is over the city's vast transport network and the police force. But the Greater London Authority's website struggles to make even those responsibilities seem genuinely important. It says, "The Mayor’s job ranges from developing policies to setting budgets and championing London around the world — all in line with his vision and in the interests of making London the best city in the world." 

In other words, the Mayor's purpose is to be the face of London. It's an egotist's dream job and the two main contenders fit the bill: the incumbent, Conservative Boris Johnson, and the challenger and former Mayor, Labour's Ken Livingstone have egos that can barely be contained inside the 607 square miles that make up this great metropolis.

They offer genuine choice to voters based on class, age, and looks. Since the job doesn't offer scope to act on ideology their politics don't really matter much, although even here, voters have two distinct brands to choose from.

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Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (his real name), 47, is the son of an extremely wealthy entrepreneur. He was educated at Eton and Oxford where he was a few years ahead of Prime Minister David Cameron. He is a hard right-winger but above the nastiness associated with that kind of conservatism, as most old Etonians are. In addition to Latin and Greek and other traditional subjects, Eton inculcates a sense of effortless charm which is a useful tool for those born to rule over lesser mortals. He lives on the north bank of the Thames, which is the socially correct side of the river.

Livingstone, 66, is a working-class lad born south of the river. He didn't go to a posh school, he didn't even go to college. He is about as up from the bootstraps as you can get, so far up from the bootstraps that now, he too, lives north of the river.

The pair have been part of London's furniture for decades. They don't ride in limousines and aren't surrounded by flunkies. Boris and I have had a number of excellent conversations about public transport over the years. This doesn't mean I know the guy. I don't. It's just that's who Boris is. He has never hidden away. Anyone, drunk or sober, can go up to him and say, "See here, my good man, " and he will have Boris's full attention.

About 15 years ago, I was stuck in one of those London traffic jams that sprout up for no reason — this one was so bad that people on bikes couldn't get anywhere either. I looked out my window and who was stuck on a bike next to me but