During last year’s London mayoral election, Ken Livingstone argued that underneath Boris Johnson’s affable, buffoonish persona there was a hardline right-winger. Johnson’s writings for the Tory press over the years certainly provided material to substantiate that charge.
Here was a man whose response to the emerging environmental crisis was to applaud George Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, assert that there was “no evidence that the planet is suffering from the extreme weather patterns associated with climate change” and dismiss concerns over global warming as the modern equivalent of “a Stone Age religion”.
One of the few politicians since Enoch Powell to regard “piccaninnies” as an acceptable term, Johnson attacked the Macpherson inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder as “Orwellian”, reacted to the July 7 bombings with the provocative and divisive comment that “the problem is Islam” and denounced multiculturalism for undermining “Britishness”. The fascist British National Party found sufficient common ground with Johnson to urge its supporters to cast a second-preference vote for him at the 2008 mayoral election.
Since taking office last May, he has changed his tune. Like Groucho Marx, Boris has his principles and if you don’t like them, he has others. As a journalist on the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator, he was happy to cater to the reactionary prejudices of his readers. As London Mayor, he now presents himself as an enthusiast for the capital’s multi-ethnic diversity and a born-again environmentalist. This is in line with David Cameron’s strategy of rebranding the Tories as progressives who have renounced bigotry and embraced green issues.
However, with a few exceptions, notably his backing for the London living wage and support for an amnesty for irregular migrants, Boris’ conversion to progressive politics remains on the level of rhetoric. His political practice is very different.
Nowhere is this clearer than on the environment. Despite his election pledge to “take action to make London the greenest city in the world”, his decisions in office point to someone who is more concerned about the rights of private vehicle drivers than the environmental damage they cause. Despite the fact that 1,000 people die prematurely in London each year because of poor air quality, he has suspended the third phase of the Low Emission Zone, scrapped Ken Livingstone’s £25 congestion charge on gas-guzzling vehicles and intends to halve the size of the Congestion Charge Zone. His plan for “restructuring” City Hall, which proposes the deletion of more than 140 posts, will reduce the environment team by half. And while Johnson uses his own enthusiasm for cycling to advertise his green credentials, this hasn’t prevented him from cutting the budget for cycle lanes by £10 million.
Johnson’s proclaimed admiration for multi-ethnic London has also proved at odds with his actions. The Rise music festival was stripped of its anti-racist message in 2008, and this year the Mayor’s office announced that the event would be abolished entirely. Further, another consequence of his proposed restructuring is that the stakeholders team who liaise between the Mayor and London’s minority communities will be restructured out of existence.
When we come to Johnson’s transport policies, we find that he has raised fares, wasted money and abandoned essential infrastructure projects.
In January, tube and bus passengers saw their fares rise by an average of 6 per cent and for some by a whopping 11 per cent. Johnson has made much of his decision to freeze the Greater London Authority element of London council tax in this year’s budget, which will save the average household in the capital just £6 a year. At the same time, thanks to his fare increases, the average Londoner will be between £100 and £300 a year worse off.
He has pressed ahead with his expensive and counterproductive plan to phase out articulated buses. Transport for London figures show that converting the first three bendy bus routes to double and single-deckers will cost over £3 million extra per year. The number of buses required to maintain current capacity on these routes will increase from 47 to 76 during peak hours, meaning longer journey times, more congestion and more pollution.
Johnson has also dropped support for the Thames Gateway Bridge, the Docklands Light Railway extension to Barking and Dagenham, the Greenwich Waterfront Transit and the Brixton to Camden Cross River Tram – all projects that would have helped poorer parts of London.
Johnson’s housing programme is equally regressive and there is little chance of his stated objective of 50,000 new affordable homes by 2011 being achieved. He has scrapped Ken Livingstone’s target for 50 per cent of all new housing to be affordable, and is instead negotiating individual borough targets which allow Tory councils to evade their obligation to provide sufficient numbers of new affordable homes. In addition, Johnson has shifted the emphasis from social rented housing towards part-buy part-rent schemes aimed at middle-income families. This is at a time when a third of a million households are already on the social rented waiting list – a figure which will inevitably rise even higher during the recession.
As an unabashed free-market enthusiast who dismisses criticism of the bankers or proposals for tighter controls over the financial sector as “neo-socialist claptrap”, Johnson has failed to develop an interventionist response to the economic downturn. His “Economic Recovery Action Plan” consists of little more than re-announcements of old initiatives, mostly those of his predecessor, and support for the work of central government and others. He has been criticised by major retailers, including Marks & Spencer, Selfridges and John Lewis, for not acting quickly enough to help business through the recession. And he has axed nearly £6 million of funding to projects working to give vulnerable Londoners the necessary skills to find employment when the economy revives.
Johnson has tried to cover up his real politics with gimmicks and spin, but Londoners are beginning to see through this. His attempt to promote himself as a defender of women’s rights at the recent launch of his domestic violence strategy fell flat when critics pointed out that his election promise to provide £744,000 to fund four rape crisis centres had been ditched, with only £233,000 being pledged – not even enough to keep London’s one existing centre open.
In short, if we look behind Boris’ new “progressive” image, what we see at City Hall is very much a traditional right-wing Tory administration. When it comes to social provision or economic regulation Johnson adheres to the Thatcherite view that the least government is the best government and he pursues a cost-cutting agenda without concern for its impact on services or the environment, while at the same time penalising the poorest sections of society. One year of Boris Johnson gives us an indication of what we can expect from four years of David Cameron, if the Tories win the next general election.
Published in Tribune, 1 May 2009