The political parties in Britain have finally selected their candidates for the first directly elected Mayor of London. Frank Dobson will run for Labour and Steven Norris will run for the Conservatives. For both sides the process in getting to this stage has been troubled, involving scandal and political infighting. But the race never was going to run smoothly, as it is a departure from what British voters are used to. For Britain this represents a new type of election with more focus on the candidate rather than party, and it will take time for the parties, media and voters to adapt to this. Yet in the long-run Britain stands to benefit with a less partisan and less centralized form of representation.
Since coming into power in Britain Tony Blair’s government has been pushing through a number of constitutional reforms. Most international coverage has picked up on the reform of the House of Lords – a radical measure that allows only 92 un-elected individuals to sit in the upper house of the legislature on the basis of who their father was. But back in Britain attention has focused on another old institution: the Mayor of London.
The Mayor of London first took office in 1189, and has traditionally been a ceremonial role taken by a senior local politician. In May 1998 the people of London voted to change this, when, in a referendum, plans for a directly elected Mayor of London were approved. The ‘yes-vote’ gave the go-ahead for what is part of the Labour government’s move to strengthen decision making at a local level. The move will give Britain’s capital a leader along the lines of those seen in US cities.
In choosing their own Giuliani equivalent, Londoners have not been treated to a range of zero tolerance, constitution violating, and art gallery threatening policies. In stark contrast to the New York Mayor, the issue that gets London’s heart beat going is very tame: whether the London subway should be privatized.
Instead the entertainment has come from the political parties in choosing their candidates. The Conservative Party attempted to get a head start in the race by announcing their candidate in October last year, 3 months before Labour was to select its candidate. This could have been a winning strategy, if only the choice of candidate had not been the scandal prone Jeffrey Archer. Archer, whose career has ranged through policeman, athlete, fundraiser, politician, art collector and novelist, was hoped to provide the Conservatives with some flair and populist appeal. Since their defeat in 1997, the Conservatives have suffered a period in the doldrums under the leadership of the uninspiring William Hague, so it is easy to see how they fell for Archer’s charm. Yet this was always going to be a high-risk strategy. Lord Archer’s career has been plagued by scandal, with suggestions that he lied about his past achievements and allegations of insider dealing on the stock market.
The most famous incident in Archer’s career occurred 13 years ago, when a national newspaper, the Daily Star, alleged that he had a sexual encounter with a prostitute, Monica Coghlan. In the wake of this allegation Archer was forced to resign as Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party. Archer managed to temporarily clear his name through a successful libel action against the Daily Star. While the courtroom success laid the foundation for his political comeback, it planted the seed for his ultimate downfall.
The success of Archer’s libel action was based on an alibi that Archer was with a friend when some of the key events in the allegations were supposed to be taking place. However in November last year, as Archer’s campaign seemed to be picking up pace, a key witness in the trial and former friend of the Lord came forward to admit that the alibi was false. The problems deepened when Archer’s former PR man came forward revealing that a payment from Archer had been instrumental in his decision to work abroad and avoid testifying in the libel trial. After this the floodgates opened bringing about more and more evidence pointing to inaccuracies in Archer’s story to the court.
Not only does this development bring back the old allegations of a sex scandal, but more seriously, it points to Archer manipulating the course of justice. In the last election repeated sex scandals and allegations of bribery - or ‘sleaze’ as it was simply dubbed in the UK press - became a major weakness in the Conservatives image that contributed to their devastating defeat. The Archer episode once again dredges up the perception of the Conservatives as a party that is hypocritical and unethical. Unsurprisingly the weight of the allegations forced Archer to resign as a candidate for Mayor. The days when he would get standing ovations from the party conference must seem a long time ago, as Archer now faces the political wilderness.
But the Conservatives would never get the clean-cut whiter than white new candidate they needed. After the debacle with Archer, the front-runner for the Conservative nomination was Stephen Norris (who was Archer’s runner up in the original race). Despite being a former minister, the 54-year-old is best known in Britain for having had 5 mistresses. He even admits himself that ‘all my skeletons are dancing around the back pages of any tabloid you care to read’. Yet to his credit Mr. Norris has made a stand against Clause 28, the ban on the advocacy of homosexuality by teachers that the Conservative leadership still supports. The Conservatives initially dropped Mr. Norris from their shortlist, fearing that his colorful love life and stand against national party policy could repeat the embarrassments they faced with Archer. But in another twist in the whole selection process, the Conservatives reinstated him on the shortlist following protests within the Party, and Norris went on to pick up the nomination.
The Conservatives had little choice but to follow this course. The Party leadership struck a maverick contender Teresa Gorman off their candidate shortlist. Her anti-European views give her populist clout with London’s die- hard right-wingers, but she is known by the leadership to be a trouble causer. As an MP her outspoken views contributed to the divisions in the Party that undermined former Prime Minister Major’s leadership. Worse still, she has described the current party leader William Hague as a ‘pre-pubescent marshmallow who is in love with himself’ – hardly the conventional way to win over the support of a politician. With all the remaining candidates for the Conservatives not mentioned above, the Conservatives could have chosen someone not known for sleaze or scandal. The problem is that none of them were known for anything at all – a few people had ever heard of them. So the Conservatives were forced to go for their only distinctive candidate, the Party’s original second choice, Stephen ‘shagger’ Norris as the candidate for Mayor.
All this bickering would have been perfect for the Labour Party to exploit. But they face their own problems that hark back to the struggles of the 1980s. Ken Livingstone ran a high profile campaign for Party nomination. Livingstone, a sitting MP, is famous for heading the Greater London Council (GLC), the London authority that was abolished by Mrs. Thatcher in 1986. Throughout the early 1980s ‘Red Ken’ was not only a thorn in Mrs. Thatcher’s side, but came into conflict with the Labour national leadership as it attempted to move the party to the center and adopt more moderate policies.
Mr. Livingstone has high name recognition and is well liked by many Londoners after all this time. Many people think that Tony Blair fears that as a Mayor of London Livingstone would challenge and embarrass the Prime Minister’s well-managed and smoothly run government. Instead Tony Blair did everything possible to see that Frank Dobson, a government minister, became the official Labour candidate.