Commentators have expressed shock and disappointment at the low turnout of each of the two London Mayor elections so far staged. Assembly candidate for the One London Party Damian Hockney has told them before that they shouldn’t be surprised and says they’re in for another surprise. Here he explains why.
They are at it again. When I stood as a candidate for London Mayor in the first contest in 2000, commentators became ever more detached from the real world. In the Evening Standard, Simon Jenkins claimed that turnout would equal, and possibly exceed the most recent General Election. Just to remind you, in those pre turnout-collapse days, this was over 70%. Everywhere in media and politics land they were talking of jostling and swaying crowds all desperate to be part of this brave new world of local democracy.
But it was not what I was hearing or seeing out there in the real world. At the time I was a magazine publisher and my staff without fail were underwhelmed by the elections, as were all my business associates and my friends..actually I could not find one single person who was galvanised by the election.
It was a total disconnect from the breathless Evening Standard leader columns and endless spreads of coverage, the terminally dull but hyped “main candidate” debates on tv and radio, the contrived hustings. Real people were not interested. Or at least they were not interested in huge numbers. And when I put out a press release saying that turnout would be 30%, possible lower (in the event it was 33.6%, almost exactly one in three), I was told by all journalists I knew that this was rubbish, everyone was interested, it was exciting and new…and it’s happening again this time.
In his eulogy to the concept of city mayors in the Sunday Times (April 20), even Simon Jenkins’ heading gives the game away – ‘Every city needs a Ken v Boris show – it brings city politics back to life‘. Talking about the elections in 160 councils in England and Wales, he says that these “will do well to to get a third of their electors to show the slightest interest”, and then goes on to say that London is “different”. Er, how? The London Mayor and Assembly election turnouts in 2000 and 2004 were as dire as those local elections! The only way London was any different was in the vast excitable but dull hype around the ‘main party’ candidates in the London media. Every Mayor election they tell us everyone’s galavanised, excited, busting to get to the polling stations…and every time it’s a flat damp squib with almost two out of three declining to buy the hype. It really is like Groundhog Day with forests of newspaper coverage in a carpet instead of the Punxsutawney snow. But even the good Pennsylvania citizens were able to get out of Groundhog Day.
Mr Jenkins is falling into the trap that much of the media and political class have. He (and yes, I admit, me too) may be fascinated with these elections but the public is not. It’s like my stamp collection – when I see a halfpenny Machin head decimal with the phosphor band just down one particular side, I may go into a trance of joy and have to be helped upstairs for a lie down…but I am hard pressed to get anyone else to experience that excitement. I’ll guarantee I lost most of you when I got to the word ‘Machin’ (or even perhaps the word ‘halfpenny’).
In 2000, I stood as a candidate for London Mayor and was immediately struck that confusion over voting systems, cynical marginalisation of alternative voices and poor choice of “main party” candidates were switching off the voters. And the media coverage curiously was making it more not less confusing. At the time I was sending out that press release, Simon Jenkins predicted a turnout that would rival and possible exceed that of the 1997 General Election.
And there is another myth which he fosters. That somehow these elections are reviving the public meeting. Well, the public meeting for important issues has never died but is strongly discouraged by modern methods of “consultation”. And if you look at these Mayoral public meetings in 2008, they are all entirely media driven and very stagey. Campaign staffs are told the media will be there so they make sure the usual suspects turn up. Far from the election galvanising the electorate, the so-called packed hustings are in fact full of the staffs and supporters of the candidates simply moving from one event to another, and most are staged for the media. If the media indicate they are not attending a hustings, which suddenly happened with one two weeks ago because the Mayor said in advance he would not be there, the attendance of the usual suspects suddenly collapses. It’s a bit like Songs of Praise and church attendance. On the telly, when the media is there, all happy smiling people singing well, knowing all the words to those new hymns and packing out the building. Next Sunday it’s back to the usual gang in the front pews.
I often agree with many points that Simon Jenkins makes, even when we have different views on something (he must have a rare ability to strike at the heart of issues). And yes he makes some very interesting points which need airing – the concept that the Mayor is more right wing than the main contender is something which many of us have silently pondered but not really been prepared to say. The warnings about cronyism and lack of oversight in the system have been the core of our own campaigning at City Hall. However, the conclusion that Londoners are delighted with tasting the “forbidden fruit of participation” and that others should do the same are simply not borne out by the facts. We are headed for a similar turnout on May 1st.
The Chair of two recent hustings made clear that the policy free muddled consensus at hustings between these “main” candidates scarcely bears out any contention that the people of London are being “treated” to a real debate on policies that Londoners can choose from! And that is really the heart of this problem. The candidates, even the ‘main’ ones, don’t actually really promise very much. They can posture about things (Boris recently on smoking or cheaper tickets to the Olympics for the kiddies, aaaah), the LibDem on using his experience to solve crime (‘go back to policing then’ is my advice), and Ken trying to clean up the city (‘try swarfega, not £25 congestion charges’ would be my advice there). And they have fallen for the idea that selling real policies and real visions are too complex for the poor old electorate. So we get the vague, the patronising, the general. And that might be fine for those who have decided ‘Anyone but Ken’ or ‘Can’t bear that blond Eton toff’. But it isn’t for the rest of us.
A text I received received from a magazine publisher said it all. “Don’t know who 2 vote 4 Mayor – have bn Ken supporter but gon off him & Boris seems 2 b idiot!” When I read this to a group of associates, they all laughed and said it struck a chord.
No amount of hype can sell a product that people don’t really want or feel they need. When you sell, you have to offer a choice. There is no real choice. There is no substitute either for real vision, beliefs and passion, of which there is none from the consensus ‘main’ candidates. The commentators need to have a lie down, the election system needs complete reform, as do the state radio and tv guidelines on coverage, and people need to be told how the voting system works. They don’t know. They really don’t. It’s like that stamp collection again. If I want to get someone interested in stamps, there’s no point babbling on to them about Machin halfpennies with phosphor bands if they don’t know what a stamp album is.
If something is not done, a future historian will pose the question to examinees: “Explain why the rise in hysteria and hype about the London Mayor election rose every four years in direct proportion to the drop in turnout”.