While much of the news coverage in Britain is taken up by the EU referendum, in under two weeks important elections take place in London. They are for Mayor and the London Assembly. There are also even more important elections in Scotland and Wales, for their parliaments, but I have less to say on these. The postal ballots are already out. Here is how I am voting and why.
The most important of the London elections is for Mayor. Under the system of regional government implemented by Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, and fully endorsed by his Tory successor, David Cameron, the Assembly has few powers beyond asking questions and kicking up a fuss. There is always a balance in these things, but the sneering disregard that Whitehall and Westminster politicians have for local councillors is very evident. As a condition for any serious devolution they insist on powers going to directly elected Mayors, about as far as you can get from the way local politics has usually been done in Britain.
So let’s talk about the Mayor first. The electoral system involves a first and second preference vote. This is widely misunderstood by Britain’s electorate, who are used to single vote first-past-the-post. What it means is that your first preference vote is never going to be wasted, because if your preferred candidate fails to get anywhere, your vote is switched to your second preference. If your second preference goes to a hopeless candidate, it will be wasted. So your first preference vote should be strategic (with your heart, if you like) and your second preference tactical (with your head). Alas most voters get this the wrong way round, so used are they to voting tactically under FPTP.
Indeed, I think it is a waste to use your first preference on one of the front runners, Labour’s Sadiq Khan or the Conservative Zac Goldsmith, except in the unlikely event that you actually really like one of them. To be fair, Zac, as I will call him, has a certain sort of charisma, so quite a few people probably do really like him, though few will be reading this blog. That hardly applies to Sadiq (as I may call him with rather more propriety, given the different conventions for names of non-European heritage), though many admire him in a certain sort of way.
So I have no hesitation in voting for Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat candidate with my first preference. This is entirely unsurprising. I am not just a party member, but an officer of the London party (Treasurer); I have known Caroline for a decade. Still, let me make the case. Caroline is hard-working, determined, unpretentious and very sharp. She has spent 8 years on the London Assembly (the only of the candidates with anything like that experience of London government), having chaired various committees, including police and transport, the critical areas for a Mayor. Caroline would be a very different sort of Mayor, but there are many examples of where a commonsense and unpretentious female politician can make very a very successful mayor (I’m thinking of Watford’s Dorothy Thornhill – but there are US examples too, up to state governor level). This is what London needs, surely, rather than more male grandstanding.
But if you are not convinced by Caroline, give a thought to Green or Women’s Equality candidates Sian Berry or Sophie Walker. They have nothing like Caroline’s credentials, but would be much better than one of the “main” candidates. The rest are mainly right wing, and at odds with London’s liberal ways, though Ukip’s Peter Whittle is miles better than the others. Don’t even think about George Galloway – a self-regarding trouble-maker who would do no good. He can do a good rant sometimes, but that is about all.
When it comes to second preferences, though, you must be tactical. If you haven’t voted for one of the big two with your first preference, then you must with your second. Anything else is a cop-out. These Mayoral elections are the only time when I have had to choose between Labour and Conservative. In the first two elections I voted for Labour’s Ken Livingstone (not strictly Labour first time), who showed real political courage with his congestion charge policy. But he got complacent, and too into machine politics, so I reluctantly switched to the Tory Boris Johnson on the next two occasions. I have very little good to say about him, but Ken (his opponent both times) would surely have been worse. But neither Boris no Ken are standing this time. I have to choose between Sadiq and Zac.
I have not found the choice hard. I have seen Zac in the flesh once, at a Lib Dem conference over a decade ago (maybe two decades), before he was a politician, and when he was editor of Ecologist magazine. He alarmed me then: he struck me as a bit crazy, convinced of his own rightness, and not listening to other points of view. No doubt he has matured somewhat, but he has not held any serious administrative office, and I have severe doubts of his capacity to do so successfully. That’s a bad start. But the Tory campaign has removed any lingering doubts. It has been advised by Lynton Crosby’s organisation (though not the man himself), and it shows. There is a lot of dog-whistle, innuendo politics, shamefully picked up by London’s Standard newspaper. This has tried to suggest that he has links with Islamic extremists. Even the Prime Minister was roped into this last week, just as postal ballots were hitting the doormats. This sort of campaigning must not succeed.
What of Sadiq? I know him a bit better, because his base of operations is in Tooting, where he is MP, and that is where my local political experience, such as it is, has been. He did not make a particularly good impression, especially at first. He was utterly graceless in his election victories of 2005 and 2010, though he’d clearly learnt a thing or two by 2015. He is ruthless, and unscrupulous, in his local electioneering. He has ducked this way and that on many issues, including, shamefully, London’s proposed Garden Bridge, a dodgy proposal if ever there was one. I would not buy a used car from him. He is actually less trustworthy than Zac.
But there is a certain sort of courage too. It was not easy for somebody of his heritage to come out in favour of gay marriage, instead of some kind of fudge. And his defence of Guantanamo internee Shaker Aamer – or rather his fight to ensure that he was subject to proper processes of justice – was both right and courageous. He has ministerial experience. He has a better chance of actually getting things done. He gets my second preference vote.
And what of the Assembly? The election uses a system of proportional representation with list and constituency votes. The party list vote is easily the most important. It matters little for the Labour and Conservative parties, but does give a chance for the others to create a political foothold in the system. I am voting for the Liberal Democrats, of course. Caroline Pidgeon tops their list, and I am keen she stays in place; she has a strong list of candidates behind her, with housing lawyer Emily Davey number two (it would be very good to have this sort expertise on the Assembly – and she’s good), and Merlene Emerson, third, would be the first Chinese heritage member of the assembly – an important community in London’s mix.
And the constituencies? It’s hard to get excited about the main party candidates; this is a bit of a backwaterfor them. I would vote for whichever candidate catches your fancy as a bit different. In Merton and Wandsworth I would strongly recommend equalities activist Adrian Hyyrlainen-Trett, the Lib Dem, or if you dislike the Lib Dems, the Green Esther Obiri-Darko. Stay well away from Ukip’s Elizabeth Jones, who demonstrates that party’s tendency to come up with whacky candidates. Between the big parties, Labour’s Leonnie Cooper is miles ahead of the Tory David Dean.
But biggest hope is the Caroline Pidgeon and her team will do as well as she and they deserve.