`London deserves ... better'

Politics: The first election for mayor of London has attracted a novelist, an actress, a nobody -- and plenty of controversy.

November 23, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Anybody want to be London's mayor?

Step right up, there's still time to get in a race that is mired in chaos, controversy and scandal.

Envisioned as a way to bring U.S.-style grass-roots power to London, the city's first mayoral campaign is descending into a political farce long before next May's election.

The Conservative Party's nominee, Jeffrey Archer, was forced to quit the race Saturday in a plot twist worthy of one of the best-selling novels he has written, as an old scandal came back to haunt him.

Archer was brought down by the revelation that in 1987 he asked a friend to provide a false alibi for him to counter a newspaper accusation that he was involved with a prostitute. As it turned out, the alibi was not needed as evidence in the libel trial in which Archer won an $800,000 judgment against the Daily Star.

But now, Archer faces political ruin, a police investigation and demands that he return the libel judgment -- with interest.

A member of the House of Lords, he was told yesterday by the Conservatives that he no longer could represent the party there.

The Tories and their leader, William Hague, vow to come up with another mayoral candidate by January. The runner-up in the previous ballot of party members, former transportation secretary Steven Norris, hasn't announced whether he will try again.

Meanwhile, the Labor Party is saddled with a knock-down fight among three final contenders and a convoluted election process that has some crying foul.

Leading the polls is left-winger Ken Livingstone, who revels in his populist image as an underdog taking on the party bosses.

But the favored candidate of Labor's power brokers is Frank Dobson, who resigned as health secretary to join the race.

Glenda Jackson, the former actress and current member of Parliament, also is campaigning. Labor's selection is in February and features separate balloting by leading politicians, labor unions and registered party members.

The Liberal Democrats already have their nominee. The shame is that few people have heard of Susan Kramer, who vows to visit every London shopping street before the election.

In a city of 7 million people, including most of the country's key power brokers, some are questioning whether this is the best campaign Londoners can come up with.

"A great city like London deserves something better," says government professor George W. Jones of the London School of Economics.

But the whole notion of an independent mayor for a capital city composed of 32 local boroughs and the square-mile city of London is new to Britain. In this country, mayors are mostly ceremonial figures who wear frilly robes, chain-like necklaces and black felt pirate-style hats to official functions.

Back in the 1980s, the city was governed by the Greater London Council, a heaving bureaucracy headed by Livingstone, nicknamed "Red Ken" as he became a symbol of the "Loony Left" of the Labor party.

He cut bus and subway fares and infuriated the then-ruling Conservatives by hanging a banner recording the numbers of unemployed in the city.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was so outraged, she moved to get the council banished in 1986, and its building was later sold off.

When Labor and Prime Minister Tony Blair came to power in 1997, they vowed to boost local government, with an elected mayor and assembly for London and regional bodies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Compared to local government in American cities, the Greater London Authority will have only limited powers.

The mayor will preside over a separately elected 25-member assembly, set a budget, oversee a fire and emergency planning authority, work with local police, and run transportation and economic development bodies.

The office offers a potential power base for the winner of a campaign that could involve as many as 5 million voters.

Those who champion the post claim that when the mayor of London speaks, people will have to listen.

So why isn't the field flooded with top-flight candidates?

"It may be people can see it's not a worthwhile job to have," Jones says.

"He or she won't have the power of a New York mayor."

Nevertheless, the candidates are trying to stake unique positions, particularly in the race among Labor's finalists.

Dobson is running on his track record, ties to the Labor leadership and promises to "deliver results that will improve the lives of Londoners."

Livingstone has a six-point plan that features a four-year freeze on transportation fares, government bonds to raise revenue for the subway and a vow to root out corruption and racism in the local police force.

Jackson promises to take "a holistic view of the issues facing London." Initially dismissed by the pundits, she has gained ground in recent days and landed an endorsement from the Independent on Sunday.

But for now, it's the Liberal Democrats who are having the grandest time of all, despite running a fame-free candidate.

At least they can boast they've got a nominee.

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