he 1st May has deep resonance for the labour movement – and in 2008 it falls on a Thursday, which is polling day in London, as elsewhere. The London Mayor and Assembly elections take place on that day, and this third Assembly election is arguably the most important - obviously for Londoners, but the potential impact of a change of Mayor and a move to an Assembly dominated by the Tories and the BNP is not to be under-estimated.
We may not have the explosions and assassinations that characterise the lead up to the election in Pakistan, nor the wall to wall coverage given to the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama war of attrition, but the 2008 election in London has its own particular charms – or not.
In London, we have a campaign that combines fighting against upper class toffs and working class racists simultaneously. Upper class toff Johnson may be – but twit he most certainly is not, and he engages the public in a way that no other Mayoral candidate ever has – except Ken Livingstone. The BNP are beneath contempt – but their lies have traction.
But despite Ken’s electoral appeal, and the importance of this election, the London Mayoral and Assembly elections always display difficulty in terms of engaging Labour Party members with any enthusiasm – well, at least for the Labour Party candidates. In 2000 many members were enthusiastic and active – but that was on behalf of Ken Livingstone, who was at the time standing on an independent ticket. In 2004, the Labour Government had fairly recently been cuddling up to the Republican President of America and was up to its neck in Iraq – so many Labour Party members took to the streets in the lead up to the Mayoral and Assembly elections – to protest against the Labour Government. In 2004, the Labour share of the vote on the Assembly slumped, and Labour managed the unimaginable – we lost a geographical seat and a top-up list seat at the same time. Labour’s share of the vote was a disaster.
In addition, in 2000 and 2004 we had a number of advantages that we no longer have. Firstly, Labour had a larger majority in the House of Commons – and this included more MPs in London, as well as everywhere else. The Tories were still in an almighty mess. In 2004 the election coincided with the Euro elections, UKIP were still one party, and Kilroy-Silk had not yet gone off to form ‘In Vino Veritas’. The 2006 London Council elections had not happened, when seven London Councils went Tory, but even worse that this, a large number of BNP Councillors were elected. The eleven BNP Councillors elected in Barking & Dagenham (yes, Labour heartland territory) now form the official opposition to the Labour administration, and they can reach out to their colleagues elected in neighbouring Havering and Redbridge. Given that the BNP very nearly got elected via the list onto the London Assembly in 2004, there is now a very real chance that they might get elected in 2008. The strength of UKIP in 2004 kept the BNP out – they currently hold two Assembly list seats, which they have every chance of losing this time around.
One small glimmer is that the BNP seem to be suffering internal discord like UKIP – but bearing in mind almost 20,000 people voted for them across London in the 2005 General Election, we can’t afford to be complacent. To keep them off the Assembly via the List the Labour and progressive vote must go up to ensure they don’t hit the 5% - it’s as simple as that.
Despite their loss of the by-election in Ealing Southall last July, the Tories did very well in Ealing in the Council elections, unlike Labour – we lost nineteen Labour Councillors. This was repeated across London, hence the Tory gains – and several other Councils went to no overall control, and are now being run by Tory/LibDem coalitions. Only Islington and Lambeth saw significant Labour gains. So without proper effort from Labour members, and other progressives who support the red-green agenda that City Hall has been rolling out for the last eight years, we stand the chance of seeing Boris as Mayor, supported by a Tory Group of eleven and two BNP members – which is a majority that would allow him to radically alter the way London has been run for almost a decade (the Assembly has 25 members, 14 elected geographically, and 11 elected via the top-up list).
So why should this matter beyond London? Well, internationally it would completely change our relationship with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world, but closer to home it would also give Cameron what both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seek – it would give him momentum. Despite a few positive opinion polls, Cameron has still not made the big breakthrough he both craves and needs – but his old school and Bullingdon Club chum Boris could be the guy that comes through for him. Ironically, it is equally important for Gordon Brown that Ken wins – just as it is for Londoners in all our diversity.
So should we be afraid, be very afraid? No, but we do all need to get out there and do the business, keeping London on its red-green agenda, keeping Boris and Cameron at bay and boosting Gordon Brown’s electoral chances, keeping the international links the Mayor has forged strong, and looking forward to the benefits that the 2012 Olympics will bring.