The London Mayoral election was held on the 1st May 2008 being, despite the presence of a string of other candidates, essentially a contest between the Conservative Party challenger Boris Johnson, and the incumbent Ken Livingstone representing the Labour Party.


The first London Mayoral election was held in 2000 and became notable for the fact that Ken Livingstone, having failed to be selected as the Labour Party candidate, then decided to stand as an independent. Although Livingstone was naturally thrown out of the Labour Party for standing against the official candidate Frank Dobson, he nevertheless came out on top with 39% of the vote, well ahead of the Conservative Party candidate Steven Norris on 27%, and streets ahead of poor Mr Dobson on a mere 13%. By the time the next Mayoral election came around in 2004, Livingstone had been accepted back into the Labour Party and stood as their official candidate, but although Livingstone was re-elected in 2004, he polled only 36% of the vote the second time round. For the Conservatives Steven Norris only succeeded in achieving a slight improvement by gaining a 28% share of the vote, and although the Liberal Democrats also significantly improved on their share of the vote, the 2004 election was most noteworthy for the fact that the various fringe parties such as the Green Party, Respect, the British National Party, and the United Kingdom Independence Party managed to attract a combined total of 18% of the vote.

Livingstone's success was put down to his status as a maverick populist and his personal appeal as the champion of London (harking back to his days as leader of the Greater London Council), and since it appeared to be his intention to stand once more in 2008, the Conservative Party naturally believed that it would have to find some kind of 'personality' as their candidate in order to stand a chance of beating him. As part of this process the Conservatives announced back in June 2006 that they intended holding an American style 'open primary' contest to select their candidate, which would be open to all Londoners on the electoral roll who took the trouble to register on a telephone hotline.

The search was therefore on for "someone people might recognise", and at various times the names of such individuals as Margot James (a prominent lesbian businesswoman), Nicholas Boles (Director of the Policy Exchange and a 'Gay Conservative'), Nick Ferrari (breakfast presenter at LBC), Sebastian Coe (former Olympic athlete), Mike Read (disk jockey), Tom Conti (actor) and Michael Portillo (politician turned broadcaster) were mentioned as possible candidates, although in the end they all either declined to become involved or pulled out of the contest. It must be said that at the time it appeared that the Conservatives were experiencing certain difficulties in finding the right candidate, and the deadline for selection was extended for six months at one point, whilst at one time the Conservative Party tried to interest the former New Labour supporter Greg Dyke in standing for Mayor, although he indicated that would only stand as an independent with the endorsement of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, and the latter expressed no interest in such an arrangement. However almost at the last minute one Boris Johnson decided to put his name forward, and when the result of the so-called 'X-Factor' contest was finally announced on the 27th September 2007, Johnson was the overwhelming winner having received over 75% of the 20,019 votes cast.

As far as the other parties were concerned; the Liberal Democrats selected their own 'maverick' candidate being one Brian Paddick, a former Metropolitan Police officer, most famous for being a homosexual former Metropolitan Police officer, and by the time nominations finally closed on the 28th March he had been joined by Richard Barnbrook (British National Party), Gerard Batten (United Kingdom Independence Party), Siân Berry (Green Party) Alan Craig (Christian Peoples Alliance and Christian Party), Lindsey German (Left List), Matt O'Connor (English Democrats) and Winston McKenzie (Independent); each of whom had met the required threshold of providing a £10,000 deposit and supported by the signatures of 330 nominees, ten from each of London's thirty-three boroughs, and none of whom, of course, had the slightest chance of winning. In fact, as the campaign developed the media became entirely focussed on the Ken versus Boris battle and quite forgot about everybody else. So much so that Damian Hockney, who had been intending to stand for the One London Party, announced his withdrawal on the 27th March 2008 blaming what he described as the media's "uncritical patsy coverage" which left "no room for the minor parties". He was joined sometime later by the English Democrats candidate Matt O'Connor (best known as the founder and spokesman of Fathers 4 Justice), who abandoned his campaign (although his name remained on the ballot) having expressed his unhappiness with the lack of coverage he was getting from the media.

The New Boris

At the time that Johnson came forward as a potential candidate, the other major parties viewed the whole idea with little more than disdain. For the Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell referred to Johnson as the "blondest suicide note in history", whilst for the Labour Party, one Tony McNulty, the Minister for Police and Security at the Home Office, referred to Johnson as "a clown" and that his selection as the Conservative candidate for Mayor was "frankly an insult to London". It was also said that David Cameron was not necessarily that enthusiastic about Boris's candidacy, given the likelihood, or more like absolute certainty as it might have seemed at the time, that Boris would go off-message at some point. In the circumstances Cameron insisted that the Australian 'campaign magician' Lynton Crosby was placed in charge of the campaign, who it was said "attached media handlers to Johnson's side like limpets" in order to minimise the chances of any pre-count gaffes on the part of the chosen candidate.

There were of course, certain positive aspects to Boris Johnson. He was undoubtedly a name people recognised, whilst he was also popular figure to many, indeed Crosby was to note that he had never come across a candidate who excited less voter hostility than Boris. Nevertheless it seems that the view in the Conservative Party was that the likely best outcome was that Johnson would put up a good fight but end up being narrowly defeated. However as the campaign progressed people saw the emergence of a new serious Boris, a phenomenon which led Nicholas Watt, writing in The Guardian, to describe Boris as having become "a new, ruthless political animal who sees vulnerable prey". Challenged on this apparently remarkable transformation, Johnson himself explained that "There is absolutely no distinction, theological or otherwise, between the Old Boris and the New Boris, they are of the same nature, the same substance". But nevertheless, the emergence of the New Boris became one of the main stories of the campaign, as at one point he even found it in his heart to actually praise Livingstone by saying that, "Some of the things he has done have been good. I like the way he champions London's diversity. I have come to understand in the course of the campaign that you have got to speak up for people who have faced discrimination and prejudice. You cannot be neutral or have a laissez-faire approach."

All this led to a certain frustration in the media as, contrary to expectations, Johnson failed to say anything remotely offensive to anyone, and even led Private Eye to refer to him as 'Boring Johnson', whilst Johnson himself later accused the media of behaving "like some ravening Hyrcanian tiger which has been deprived of its mortal prey". None of which of course pleased the Labour Party since as the media spent so much of its time discussing the merits of the New Boris against those of the old Boris, it quite forgot about anyone else, and particularly seemed uninterested in arguments about bendy busses and whether or not Johnson had got his figures wrong.

Dirty tricks and dog-whistle politics

To give Ken Livingstone his due, from the beginning he appears to have recognised that Johnson was at the very least a real potential threat. And perhaps for good reason, as back in 2000 his own candidacy had been similarly dismissed as a 'joke' by the establishments of the same Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats who were now apparently so appalled by the emergence of Boris Johnson as the Conservative candidate.

Indeed back on the 21st August 2007, before Johnson had even won the nomination, the 'Democratic Left' think tank and pressure group Compass had published a 'dossier' which allegedly presented "the truth about Boris Johnson through his own words". Compass duly condemned Boris as a member of the "Hard Tory Right" on the basis of his support for the Gulf War, George W Bush, nuclear power, and Thatcherism, apparently blissfully unaware of the delicious irony that under these criteria almost the entire Labour cabinet would qualify as being members of the 'Hard Tory Right'. As it turned out this report was given unusual prominence in the media despite the fact that Compass was a far left group of no particular significance even within the Labour Party, whilst its general conclusion was particularly bizarre, since Boris was widely regarded as being a rather liberal Conservative. Indeed Andrew Sparrow, the senior political correspondent of The Guardian for one, had referred to Boris "a liberal Tory", whilst his fellow Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins even went so far as to describe him as "Tory-only-if-you-insist". The journalist Andrew Gilligan subsequently addressed the subject matter of the Compass dossier in the Evening Standard of the 31st August, and demonstrated how it relied on selective misquotations which frequently implied that Boris had said the exact opposite of what he had in fact said. It was naturally concluded that Compass was doing its level best to 'help out' Ken Livingstone by trying, and miserably failing, to dig out some dirt on his opponent.

If nothing else this demonstrated that Livingstone still retained a certain totemic significance for the left of the Labour Party, or as one Guardian columnist named Jonathan Freedland put it, "If progressive politics cannot hold on in London, the most diverse city in Britain, it surely cannot hold on anywhere." Leaving asise the question of what, precisely, is meant by "progressive politics", by challenging and defeating the New Labour orthodoxy back in 2000, Livingstone had become a symbol of hope for the left and he had certainly showed a fondness for promoting the kind of large-scale public spending project such as the Congestion Charge, and the London Olympics, that often appeals to those on the political left, whilst there were those that noted the presence in his team of such individuals as John Ross and Redmond O'Neill. (It was said that these gentlemen members of a secretive Left-wing activist collective known as Socialist Action, which regarded itself as the true heir to the Trotskyist Fourth International and had been described as "a small group whose members work at burrowing into positions of borrowed 'power' and influence as factotums for MPs and the like".)

Following on from the theme set by the Compass dossier, when Livingstone officially launched his campaign on the 18th March 2008, its main feature was a "string of bitter personal attacks" he made on his Johnson whom he described as adopting "right wing dog-whistle politics". Indeed the second story of the campaign was the manner in which the Livingstone team focused almost entirely on trying to trash Boris. Aside from the aforementioned 'dodgy dossier', there was the strange case of the 'theft' of Tariq Aziz's cigar case, which was again believed to be an attempt by the Livingstone camp to 'smear' Johnson, whilst there was also a pro-Ken grouping known as the as the British Muslim Initiative which circulated a bilingual leaflet, where the Bengali language version claimed that "Boris has expressed his hatred against Islam, the Koran and the Muslims" and that it was a "Muslims' moral duty to support Ken". (Strangely enough the English language version omitted the attack on Johnson, as if the London media naturally lacked a Bengali speaker able to point out that as as a third-generation descendant of a Turkish muslim, Johnson was amongst those least likely to express such sentiments.) To cap it all, on the eve of the election on the 30th April, The Times reported (under the headline of 'Ken Livingstone resorts to mudslinging as campaign ends') how Livingstone had adopted the campaign message of "Don't vote for a joke: Vote for London", which was to be featured on postcards being sent to a million Londoners. (Never mind that it wasn't being made clear who was the 'joke' and who stood for 'London'.)

Indeed as the Sunday Times revealed after the election, the Conservatives had their own mole within the Labour campaign team and were therefore quite aware that instructions had been issued to "go negative" on Johnson. The Times even had sight of one of the scripts issued to staff manning the phones at the Labour call-centre which played on the fact that the British National Party were asking for their supporters to place their second-preference votes for Johnson, to cast him as some kind of right-wing extremist. However the message from the mole was that the Labour telephone campaign was generally receiving a "hostile response" from the public, and that morale amongst the call-centre volunteers had sunk so low that on one shift on the 30th April only three out of the thirty bothered to turn up. As was later pointed out, the Labour strategy of simultaneously Bashing Boris as a joke and a dangerous reactionary was somewhat contradictory, and since it was almost self-evident that the latter charge was a little over-the-top, this simply communicated the message that perhaps the former was as well.

However perhaps the most bizarre moment of the campaign was on the 1st April when the Livingstone team 'leaked' a video clip, apparently an outtake from a campaign video, which showed their man responding to the question "what would you say was your proudest moment?" and replying, "Oh it's taking on and smashing the New Labour machine in 2000 when Tony Blair wouldn't let me run for mayor and just grinding them into the dust" after which he laughed and said "But you won't be able to use that one." Livingstone claimed that this was simply a joke, but it was unclear why his campaign team had decided to make it public. Some speculated that it was a deliberate attempt by Livingstone to motivate his own voters by distancing himself from the Labour Party, whilst others thought it might be an attempt to appear more like Johnson to the electorate.

Livingstone versus YouGov

Although it was felt during the run up to Christmas 2007 that the Johnson was failing to make much impression, on the 2nd January 2008 the Evening Standard announced that the race between Johnson and Livingstone was "too close to call" on the basis that its recently commissioned YouGov poll had Livingstone on 45%, Johnson on 44%, with Brian Paddick "trailing badly" for the Liberal Democrats on 7%. However later that month on the 21st January, the Channel 4 documentary series Dispatches broadcast a programme which featured a number of allegations relating to the £600 million budget of the London Development Agency (LDA), or as it was apparently known in City Hall, "Ken's Piggy Bank". It seemed that the LDA had granted millions of pounds to various corporate bodies which had failed to file accounts, or had closed-down soon after receiving the money, and sometimes both; whilst amongst these bodies were several ethnic minority projects allegedly associated with the mayor's director of equalities and policing, one Lee Jasper. (With a police investigation pending, Livingstone was obliged to suspend Lee Jasper on the 26th February 2008; although he remained confident his ally would be cleared of any impropriety and blamed a "witch-hunt" by people with a "racist" agenda for the row.)

The Guardian of the 25th January 2008 felt sufficiently reassured by the news of an opinion poll that showed Livingstone was now leading Johnson by 44% to 40% with Paddick on 8%, to announce that "Livingstone's poll rating unharmed by TV revelations". However subsequent polls conducted by YouGov showed quite a different picture, and by the 21st February the score was 44%-39% in favour of Johnson, a lead that was repeated in further polls that showed that Johnson was leading by 49%-37% on the 21st March and by 47%-37% on the 31st March. Livingstone's reaction to this news was to claim that these polls were wrong in that they failed to take proper account of London's minority population, and that YouGov had "record of significantly underestimating" his support. However more independent sources noted that no polling organisation took any account of race and that YouGov had a record of getting the result right.

When the penultimate YouGov poll emerged on the 28th April and showed that Boris was leading by 46% to 35%, this prompted the Evening Standard to run the headline 'Boris surges ahead in poll', whilst the "spokeswoman for Mr Livingstone's campaign" emerged to condemn it as "a farcical poll which will do deep damage to the reputation of YouGov when the actual result is announced on 1 May". Leaving aside the fact that the result would actually be announced on the 2nd May, it should be noted that whilst the YouGov/Evening Standard polls consistently showed Johnson ahead of Livingstone, other opinion polls, conducted by the likes of Ipsos Mori, ICM and Mruk, all showed that the contest was much tighter and even put Livingstone as much as three points ahead of Johnson. Indeed one of the side issues of the campaign was the technical question as to the different polling methodologies being adopted, and which would be vindicated by the actual result.

One might speculate as to what extent the turnaround in the relative political fortunes of Johnson and Livingstone was a product of the Dispatches documentary or the stream of similar revelations appearing in the Evening Standard, or whether it was the magic of Lynton Crosby who was managing the emergence of the New Boris. Nevertheless whilst the Labour Party appeared tio have decided to run a largely negative campaign, the Conservative campaign strategy was apparently to make crime the number one issue, and focus on what is referred to as the doughnut vote. Which is to say, they concentrated on getting out the vote from the outer London boroughs, rather than in the inner city area, which it was believed was the bedrock of the pro-Livingstone vote.

Its the votes that count

It was noticable that, during a final eve of poll interview with the Evening Standard, Livingstone claimed that Johnson would suffer from the 'hovering pencil syndrome'; in that voters would change their minds once they were in the privacy of the polling both. This certainly appeared to be more a case of wishful thinking than a realistic expectation, and a tacit admission that he knew he was losing.

Nevertheless the official Labour line as the polls opened on the 1st May was that it would be "a close race", and that "second preference votes would decide the result". Apparently the Livingstone campaign team were initially hopeful after their canvassers reported high turnouts in the inner-London areas regarded as Ken's strongholds; or at least until they discovered that the turnout was even higher in the outer boroughs which were believed to favour Boris. Indeed the overall turnout of 45% was well ahead of the 37% experienced in 2004 and the 34% of 2000, a factor which was put down to fact that the high profile Ken-Boris battle had captured the public's attention.

By the time counting began on the morning of the 2nd May the results were in from many of the Local Council Elections also held on the 1st May. The news wasn't good for Labour as it showed that the party had experienced its worst set of election results since 1968, none of which boded particularly well for Livingstone. By the early afternoon BBC News was reporting that the early results suggested that Johnson was ahead, and as more and more Local Council results came in to confirm the scale of the Labour losses, it appeared less and less likely that Labour would be able to hold London. By the afternoon The Times was reporting that one bookmaker (Paddy Power) had already announced that it was paying out on a Johnson victory, despite the fact that the count was not yet even half completed, as the Evening Standard threw caution to the wind and announced that 'Boris is the Mayor', and hailed his victory as "one of the most spectacular transformations in political history". Even The Guardian had the story "Where Ken's campaign went wrong" on its website at 5.30pm, and by 8.00 pm was telling the world that "Boris Johnson was tonight on course to win a remarkable victory".

Unfortunately, although it had initially been intended to announce the result at 8.30 pm, the high turnout meant that there were a lot more votes to be counted than had been planned, and everyone had to wait until just a few minutes before midnight, when it was finally revealed that Boris Johnson had received 1,043,761 votes (42.48%) against 893,877 votes (36.38%) for Ken Livingstone, leaving the Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick trailing well behind in third place with 236,685 votes or 9.63%. (At which point it's worth noting that the final YouGov poll which showed Johnson on 43% and Livingstone on 36% got to the result almost exactly right, and so no doubt Livingstone's letter of apology is now in preparation.)

Of course the London Mayoral elections are held under the Supplementary Vote system, in which electors are also permitted to register a second preference, and in the circumstances where no candidate receives a majority of the first preference votes, it is necessary to count the second preference votes of those electors who had failed to vote for the two frontrunners. As with previous contests this made absolutely no difference to the result, as the second preference votes were fairly evenly divided between Johnson (124,977) and Livingstone (135,089).

Saint Boris's Day

Appropriately enough, both the Bulgarian and Greek Orthodox churches celebrate the 2nd May as Saint Boris's Day, and so it was during the final minutes of that day, that Boris Johnson, dismissed by many as a "joke" and a "buffoon", came to be elected as the Mayor of London, to cap what was a day of truly catastrophic electoral results for the Labour Party. Johnson's victory was indeed a pretty remarkable result, and it is worth remembering that with over a million votes to his name, the scale of the personal mandate he received quite dwarfs the 650,000 or so votes that put the Scottish National Party into office in Scotland. There were undoubtedly many who woke up on the 2nd May and scratched their heads in disbelief at the news that Boris Johnson was indeed the elected Mayor of the nation's capital city, in charge of a budget of some £12 billion, and now the most powerful Conservative politician in the country. This development might well have been a surprise to Johnson himself, as according to The Independent, one of those present when the candidates were privately informed of the result, told them that Johnson looked "shell-shocked" and "awful" when he heard the news, as if "He really never expected to win". Nevertheless win he did, and informed sources give much of the credit to Lynton Crosby who, at a cost of £140,000 for four months work, "brought total discipline to the campaign" and ensured that Johnson understood that he was not, in any circumstances, to speak his mind, without checking with him first.

There was a certain amount of speculation as to the nature of the relationship between the Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron and Johnson, and whilst The Independent claimed that Cameron regarded Boris as an "amusing liability", the Daily Telegraph claimed that it was Cameron who had suggested to Johnson that he run for Mayor in the first place. Indeed the Independent on Sunday appeared particularly keen to suggest that there might be friction between the two, and even published a piece of political fantasy by John Rentoul under the title 'The day Boris became Mayor was the beginning of the end for Dave', whilst there were those, such as the Mail on Sunday, who seemed to believe that Johnson had an ambition to use the position of Mayor as his own springboard to Downing Street in due course. But however the relationship develops between Johnson and Cameron, it must be remembered they are at least beginning on friendly terms. Throughout his term as Mayor, Livingstone was pretty much at war with the Labour Party, and whatever their personal differences, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were united in their hatred of, and contempt for, Livingstone; none of which of course prevented Labour from winning two General Elections in 2001 and 2005.

As far as Johnson was himself concerned he made the announcement that "I was elected as new Boris and I will govern as new Boris, or whatever the phrase is", being a concious and no doubt satiric reference to the words spoken by Tony Blair at the Royal Festival Hall on the morning of the 2nd May 1997; "we have been elected as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour". According to the Telegraph Johnson would now be establishing the blueprint of a "Tory revolution", slashing "wasteful spending and bureaucracy", in particular closing the "string of overseas offices" that Livingstone had felt it necessary to establish in Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai and Brussels, and launching a series of "swift initiatives ... designed to make London a powerhouse of Tory ideas".

This is of course, the last thing the Labour Party wanted to happen, indeed according to The Times "Labour poured a big proportion of its financial resources into the London campaign" in its failed attempt to preserve the Party's control of the capital. (And many have reflected on the irony that Brown felt obliged to spend so much in trying to shore up his old adversary.) There were some Labour pundits who drew comfort in defeat by believing that the party would be able to make political capital out of any mistakes made by Johnson (and who knows they might even be right), but there remained of course, what might well be described as Gordon Brown's worst nightmare; a Conservative administration in London that actually works, and serves to show the public what life might be like after Gordon.


The above article is naturally drawn from a variety of reports in the British media including BBC News, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and their Sunday equivalents, as well as of course The Evening Standard, but see in particular;

  • Andrew Gilligan, How Boris quotes were spun, Evening Standard, 31.08.07
  • Andrew Grice, How Boris ditched the jokes and became a serious threat to Ken, The Independent 30 April 2008
See also

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