By Mehdi Hassan, The Guardian April 2012
Comment is Free
OK. Can we all just agree for a moment? Ken Livingstone should have paid much more tax than he did. The former mayor of London had no business setting up a service company to effectively reduce his tax bill – especially after having demanded that "rich bastards" pay their "full share of tax".
But are some lefties really going to support Boris Johnson on 3 May? In recent weeks, the Observer's Nick Cohen and the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland have lashed out at Labour's mayoral candidate, over not just his tax affairs but his alleged comments about Jewish voters. "It is important that Londoners reject Livingstone," stressed Cohen, omitting to mention that rejecting Ken means embracing Boris, he of "piccaninnies" and "watermelon smiles" infamy. The contest, remember, is a two-ego race; we don't have the luxury of a protest vote.
"I don't want to see Boris Johnson re-elected," wrote Freedland, "but I can't vote for Ken Livingstone." This is an evasion, pure and simple: if you don't want to see Boris re-elected then you have to vote for Ken. Sorry, there are no two ways about it.
Yes, the Tory candidate pays his taxes in full. He is blond, cuddly and witty. But the re-election of Boris as mayor would be nothing short of a disaster for residents of the capital. Boris doesn't care about ordinary Londoners. He's just not interested in their lives or, crucially, their livelihoods.
A myth has grown up around this mayor: that he is independent-minded, his own man, a loose cannon willing to resist and challenge his fellow Tories, David Cameron and George Osborne. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Since 2010, Londoners have been hit by the VAT rise, cuts to tax credits and Sure Start centres, a trebling of tuition fees and record unemployment. But we haven't heard a peep out of Boris. He has time to appear on Top Gear and EastEnders, but not to denounce the chancellor's growth-choking, job-destroying cuts.
OK, that's not fair. The mayor does have time to address the concerns of some Londoners. Well, some (City of) Londoners. Since his election in 2008, he has made time in his diary for an astonishing 111 meetings with bankers and representatives of the financial services industry (he had just 73 meetings with the Metropolitan police in the same period).
You see, Boris is very keen for us to stop "abusing" poor banksters, whom he refers to sympathetically as "lepers" and "pariahs". Since 2008, he has publicly intervened in the debate over the 50p top rate of tax on at least eight separate occasions, describing it as a "disaster for this country" and calling for it to be cut. Osborne's decision to slash the top rate to 45p will put extra cash in the pockets not just of hedge fund managers and City traders but also of Boris himself – who earned just under £900,000 in freelance earnings, on top of his six-figure mayoral salary, during his first three years at City Hall. ("It's outrageous. I've been raped!" said Boris, according to a recent biography, when he was asked to give a portion of those earnings to charity.)
If only the mayor could persuade the chancellor to offer financial support to the 99% of Londoners who don't pay the 50p tax. In 2010, the mayor pledged to mount a "Stalingrad-like" defence of the capital from the coalition's cuts. Consider, however, two numbers: 46,205 and 111,190. The first is the number of low-income households in London that have been hit by the changes to the eligibility rules for the Working Tax Credit, which kicked in last Friday and could cost up to £3,870 per year per household; the second is the total number of children affected by those changes. In London, four out of every 10 children live in poverty.
Meanwhile, unemployment in the capital is now higher than the national average (10% versus 8.4%) and youth unemployment has jumped by more than 26,000 since 2008. But Boris isn't bothered. Doing his best impression of Norman Tebbit, circa 1981, the mayor told the Sun in January that "the jobs are there and [young] people need to have the energy to go out and get them". (For the record, there are more than seven people chasing every job vacancy in the capital.)
On 3 May, the choice is as stark as it is simple: Ken or Boris? A mayor who will stand up to austerity or one who'll demand more of it? A mayor who wants to tax bonus-hungry bankers or one who wants to shill for them?
Remember: the Labour candidate is promising a 7% cut in fares, a restoration of the Education Maintenance Allowance, a reduction in rents via a new non-profit London lettings agency, and extra help with heating bills and childcare costs. His Tory opponent, in contrast, says it would "not be appropriate" to "try to tackle rents" and is offering only a pitiful 6p-a-week cut in council tax.
Ken is far from the perfect candidate. He can be boorish, arrogant, hypocritical. Nonetheless, he has a long record of standing up for the poorest Londoners, whereas the current incumbent's defence of London from the cuts has been more Maginot Line than Stalingrad.
The truth is that Boris may be the master of the quick quip and the funny photo op but he is, fundamentally, out of touch; uninterested in the plight of those who don't look, sound or live like him and his fellow millionaires.
Boris is the bankers' nominee; the candidate of the 1%, not the 99%. Ordinary Londoners deserve better.
Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) at the New Statesman and co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader (Biteback)