Just before Christmas LBC radio secured itself a place in the history books as the instigator of the first skirmish between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone in the tediously long campaign for 2012’s Mayoral elections.
The consensus appears to be that the pair haven’t engaged in direct combat since the 2008 election yet, between anti-Ken barbs from Boris during speeches and Mayor’s Question Time appearances and a salvo of anti-Boris press releases from Ken ever since his defeat, there can’t have been a week when the two weren’t campaigning against one another.
Ever since Boris Johnson was adopted as the Conservative’s 2008 candidate, Londoners have been treated to the spectacle of the pair trading insults and counterclaims over the legitimacy of the Congestion Charge’s Western Extension Zone, the level of fares, police numbers and ticket office closures.
Along the way common sense and logic have been abandoned.
In office Ken Livingstone proposed closing ticket offices because the success of Oyster meant fewer people were buying paper tickets. In the 2008 campaign Boris Johnson poured scorn over the policy and the reasons behind it.
The true absurdity of the situation comes when the pair are questioned about their current stances, for his part Boris likes to pretend he has no idea what the previous office-holder’s position was while Ken relies on trying to convince the questioner that no jobs would have been lost under his stewardship and affected employee would have been redeployed.
On fares neither has much to crow about though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise from their various pronouncements.
In office Ken not only put up fares but deliberately ensured cash fares were far higher than the Oyster equivalent to help drive down TfL’s costs. The needs of the causal bus user came a distant second to the desire to reduce cash handling costs. That policy of course created the backdrop for the ticket office closures Ken now opposes.
Meanwhile Boris likes to point to his freezing of the Council Tax precept as evidence of how little he costs Londoners while presiding over three years of fare increases. He also opted to give away £55m in revenue from the Western Extension Zone while putting up bus fares by £60m.
Boris’s defenders are right to point out that consulting on the WEZ’s future and abiding by that consultation was a manifesto promise which he’s kept (unlike the equally solemn undertakings on ticket offices, six-monthly checks on taxis and the level of the congestion charge) but the similarity of the figures suggests his insistence that he had no option but to increase fares may not be quite as robust as he’d like.
More dangerously for Boris, it can be made to look plain dishonest.
Keen to exploit the latest fare increase, Livingstone has been briefing that “fares in the next Mayoral term will not be as high under me if I am elected, than they would be under a second Boris Johnson term.”
It’s a torturous promise to which Livingstone knows he can never be held because, as Dave Hill beat me in pointing out, we’ll never know what the fare level under Boris would have been if he’s ejected by voters next May.
In response to such points Livingstone campaign figures insist it’s too early to be specific about what they’d do, but Londoners are entitled to ask why Labour bothered selecting a candidate so early if they’re not going to talk in specifics about their vision for London?
Team Ken have another problem which Andrew Gilligan has touched upon – every time Ken attacks Johnson his own past terms as Mayor give his opponents plenty of ammunition to fire back.
For his part Boris is busy creating his own presentational woes by campaigning against high taxes for bankers while happily doing business with loan firms charging the poorest and most needy households insanely high levels of interest.
Meanwhile important discussions about the future of London aren’t taking place.
Watching the London Assembly questioning the heads of London’s ‘functional bodies’ this morning it was clear that the capital is facing some very lean years during which the shape and scope of services will have to change drastically.
The truth is, despite past rhetoric on openness and accountability from both, neither the current Mayor or his predecessor and would-be successor seem interested in setting out what an ‘austerity London’ might look like.
Very soon that will have to change, by the time Londoners cast their votes next May they deserve to know how both contenders plan to guide the capital through the times ahead, which services are sacrosanct and which are open for review.