Having spent the evening getting wound up and fulminating about American politics, I tried to relax by listening to BBC coverage of the British local elections, with particular interest in the outcome of the race for mayor of London, a rather colorful affair pitting Trotskyite newt-fancier Ken Livingstone against unreconstructed Tory toff Boris Johnson, who one imagines had to be dragged away from a bunfight down at the Drones Club in order to make this race. (Calvin Trillin, in the April 14 issue of the New Yorker, gives a very good account, but apparently you can only access an abstract online.)
The Labour Party is getting skunked, though the mayoral results, determined by one of those first choice/second choice preferential voting systems, won't be available for several hours yet. In light of the choice between Livingstone and Johnson, I'm rather glad not to be living there any longer, as I'm thus able to observe from a bemused distance rather than fearing for the future of my beloved London.
The choice confronting Londoners is a bit like that posed by the American presidential election. Livingstone is on most levels an odious little creep with authoritarian tendencies and a venal entourage (though Ken himself seems to have refrained from any overt looting) who has nonetheless done some great things for London, especially with regard to public transport and pedestrianizing public spaces like Trafalgar Square which almost but not quite enable one to forgive him his predilection for Islamist fanatics and race-based demagogues. Johnson, on the other hand, is infinitely more charming, albeit in a buffoonish, self-deprecating way, but you get the feeling that given control of London's transport system (one of the mayor's chief remits), his attitude would me akin to that of the 19th century lord who tried to block construction of Britain's railway system on the grounds that it would "only encourage the laboring classes to travel about needlessly."
Livingstone's rigidly PC identity politics have made it difficult to impossible for him to put a dent in London's rapidly growing crime and violence problem, but it's hard to imagine Johnson getting much of a handle on things, either, being the sort of fellow more likely to be nicking policemen's helmets on Boat Race Night than leading the constabulary into battle against the forces of disorder.
There is a third candidate, the Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick, who Trillin not inaccurately describes as "the gay policeman." Paddick, backed by Elton John and probably someone else as well, originally rose to fame as the Brixton police commander who ordered his officers to stop enforcing the cannabis laws on the grounds that their time could better be used to investigate "more serious" crimes. Hailed at the time as the sort of courageous and innovative policing that Britain would need for the 21st century, Paddick's initiative ultimately had the effect of turning much of central Brixton into an open air drugs market and an even greater hotbed of violent crime than it had already been. A corollary effect was that local schoolteachers began complaining that a whole tranche of 12-14 year olds had become virtually uneducable by virtue of arriving at school stoned out of their minds on more mornings than not.
I don't want to be too smug, as we could be facing a similarly unappealing choice here in New York come 2009, but for now at least, I can take comfort in our relatively colorless but far more efficient billionaire mayor. Meanwhile, Labour have been pushed into third place nationwide by the Conservatives and the LibDems, and things are looking (sorry, Kendra!) especially grim for Gordon Brown, who this morning might well be asking himself, "I waited ten years for this?"