London Mayor's Race Not Your Average Election

Have you heard the one about the Socialist, the old Etonian and the gay policeman? Londoners have, because those are the three main candidates to be mayor of London.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

So, have you heard the one about the socialist who loves newts, the oversexed aristocrat, and the gay policeman? Well, Londoners have, because those are their three choices for mayor. They vote next week. NPR's Rob Gifford reports on this entertaining race.

ROB GIFFORD (Foreign Correspondent, London): It's a tough choice for Londoners. In one corner, Ken Livingston, Red Ken, incumbent mayor, supporter of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, who once compared to Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard. In the other corner, Boris Johnson, journalist turned politician, known as Bonking Boris for his numerous affairs. He recently described African children as piccaninnies and claimed that voting Conservative would make your wife have bigger breasts and increase your chances of a BMW. There are a dozen other hopefuls, including a gay former police chief, but really, it's a two-horse race. Tongue in cheek, heart on sleeve and frequently, cap in hand, Ken and Boris are not your average political animals. But then, the thinking goes, London is not your average city.

(Soundbite of pool balls)

GIFFORD: Red Ken is out on the stump shooting pool at a youth club in South London, his home turf.

Mr. KEN LIVINGSTONE (Mayor, London): The money's there. And you really want a double-use provision over the next two years.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Mr. LIVINGSTONE: So, if you've got plans to open every night...

Unidentified Man: That's exactly it.

Mr. LIVINGSTONE: This is the time to put into it.

GIFFORD: The former champion of the Looney Left, scourge of Margaret Thatcher, is discussing his plans to expand funding for youth centers like this. Youth worker Tony Saunders(ph) says he knows who he'll be voting for.

Mr. TONY SAUNDERS (Youth Worker): I think he's an excellent mayor. He will certainly get my vote. I don't think it's about class at all. I think it's about who has a heart for London.

GIFFORD: Livingstone himself, who started in local government in the 1970s, says this is all about experience, dull and boring though that may sound.

Mr. LIVINGSTONE: I recreated city government eight years ago, and we're just about to start a 39-billion-pounds transport capital investment program. Four billion pound housing program, whereas Boris Johnson, of course, has the great experience of having run a small right-wing newspaper, where the only difficult decision was where to go for lunch.

GIFFORD: Certainly, Boris doesn't have Ken's experience. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, to use his full name, is the kind of posh Englishman that many foreigners believes still lurks on the corner of every manicured lawn sipping a gin and tonic, but that everyone in Britain knows to be almost extinct. Educated at Eton and Oxford, blessed with a mop of unruly baby-blond hair, Boris boasts he's the only candidate to speak ancient Greek fluently. He's become something of a national institution, not least for his regular appearances on a popular BBC quiz show, where he's recklessly honest about his past.

(Soundbite of a BBC quiz show)

Unidentified TV Host: Have you snorted cocaine?

Mr. BORIS JOHNSON (Mayoral Candidate, London): I tried to, but unsuccessfully, a long time ago.

Unidentified TV Host: What was unsuccessful about it?

Mr. JOHNSON: I sneezed...

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

GIFFORD: In a country that has never really gone for the Hollywood crossover into politics, Boris Johnson is about as close as you get. He's had to tone down his assaults on political correctness, but so far, he has seemed the livelier campaigner, not least in trying to scotch accusations that he's far too posh to be the mayor of such a diverse city.

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm going to work like blazes for the people of London. And I don't think Londoners give a monkey's where you come from; what they want to know is whether you're interested in what they've got to say, you're interested in their problems, and that you've got some good ideas to solve them.

GIFFORD: Out on the streets, ordinary Londoners such as Peter Revell(ph) and Max Grizard(ph) are weighing up the question. Does the big personality with the big hair have the big policies for London?

Mr. PETER REVELL (London Resident): Boris, yeah, he's a bit of a clown, isn't he, really, to be honest? Well, he doesn't have anything reasonable to say. He doesn't, he just seems to make soundbites and jokes and comments, there's no sort of substance to his policies.

Mr. MAX GRIZARD (London Resident): Well, I'm hoping he'll win actually. A lot of his ideas are fairly good, and I'm a bit fed up with Ken.

GIFFORD: In the end that may be what decides it. Are people tired of the incumbent and ready to turn to a new outsider known more his personality than his politics? Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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