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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.

Boris. This was when he was editor of the Spectator magazine and already a city-wide celebrity. Anyway, I rolled down down my window and struck up a conversation. We analyzed the immediate problem ahead and what needed to be done in future to make sure it didn't happen again — bus and bike lanes, I think was the solution.

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By the time Boris became mayor in 2008 there was no need to put our plan into effect because Ken, who was the first person to hold the position of Mayor, actually put bus and bike lanes in place when he came into office in 2001.

Ken, is a different sort of person than Boris, more pricklish. He started his family very late in life and I see him from time to time at the Hampstead Heath playground. No matter the weather he wears a coat with his collar turned up so you can only see his face from the nose up. I guess it's a way of warning people to stay away while he is having private time with his kid. Fair enough. But Boris would never do that.

So their egos are evenly matched. Both love London the way Londoners love London.

Boris is more charming and colorful. But Ken, has a pretty wicked political sense of humor. During the '80s he ran the Greater London Council, a previous incarnation of city-wide government. His offices were on the other side of Westminster Bridge from Parliament. Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her power and Ken erected a sign on top of GLC headquarters with London's unemployment rate on it. Mrs. T was not amused. She put a bill through Parliament disbanding the GLC.

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But Ken has a blind spot. He is genuinely of the left, unlike most senior Labour Party politicians, and he buys into a lot of hard-left rhetoric about things that have nothing to do with London, like the conflict in Israel/Palestine. Down the years he has made more than a few comments that could be construed as anti-Semitic. His statements go beyond offensive. It has turned a lot of potential voters off. A few weeks ago, The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland wrote, "I should be an automatic vote for Livingstone. But I'm not … I can no longer do what I and others did in 2008, putting to one side the statements, insults and gestures that had offended me, my fellow Jews and – one hopes – every Londoner who abhors prejudice."

Freedland ends by announcing he will not be voting for Ken.

I won't end with a similar declaration, because Boris has a blind spot too. It is for the City of London, the financial district, (it too has its own mayor, police force, by-laws). The City is still the epicenter of all that is wrong with global finance and it has an outsized effect on London's economy, City bonuses shape the city's housing boom which is leading to life-long residents being forced to move out. 

Many inner London boroughs have unemployment rates way above the national average because the City generates wealth for its players but no jobs for ordinary Londoners. Boris in his first term of office has not spoken up for those who are having a very hard time making ends meet. He has gone out of his way to talk up the financial services industry without ever mentioning its responsibility to give back to the city in which it is based.

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There is no doubt that Ken would do more for those who are on an economic knife edge than Boris. That's important to me. But his toughness is manifested in a nasty streak a mile wide and he uses it to play identity politics — against people with my identity.

On the other hand, Boris is charming, and you can always give him an earful and get a quip back in return. But if I want a laugh I can go to a comedy club.

Egos pure and simple. Modern politics distilled to its essence. The problem is which one to choose, when neither really makes this voter enthusiastic.