Between Ken and Boris: a no-brainer

This is for registered voters in London, England.

How to vote in the London mayoral elections on Thursday (May-day)?  It is not difficult to decide.  It's going to be either Ken Livingstone, the Labour incumbent, or Boris Johnson, the Tory challenger.  Whether you think Livingstone is a good socialist lefty or an arrogant opinionated shifty s**t is completely irrelevant.  It's not a beauty contest; not even a personality contest.  The only question is whether you think it would be a good Johnsonidea to deliver London into the hands of Johnson, a man who has never administered anything; who appears to have difficulty mugging up briefs written for him on even quite straightforward subjects;  whose opinions as reflected in his columns in the right-wing Daily Telegraph, and editorials in the Spectator, are in some cases offensive to decent liberal opinion and in others simply offensive, period;  who is prone to massive errors of judgment from which he seeks to escape by playing the buffoon;  who is alarmingly typical of his background — Eton, and the foppish and reactionary Bullingdon Club at Oxford;  who, because of his ignorance and incompetence, is at the mercy of his minders and fund-raisers, all right-wing Tories, many (including the owners of the London Evening Standard which has run a disgraceful smear campaign against Livingstone) with big business interests which Johnson would almost certainly defer to in his decisions and policies as mayor;  who would have little chance, as a right-wing Tory, of extracting for Londoners the indispensable billions of pounds of public money from a Labour government with an interest in seeing him fail (whereas Livingstone, with a massive personal political following, plus a proven record of progressive success and of independence from his party leadership, has been spectacularly successful in this complex and sophisticated task);  and who (Johnson again) would probably prove equally unsuccessful in extracting public money for London from a Conservative government in the gruesome event of a Conservative victory at a general election during the next mayoral term of office, since he is in hock to his party's bosses, not remotely independent of them.

Like him or loathe him (and there are grounds for either or both), Livingstone by almost universal consent has done an unexpectedly excellent job as mayor.  Some of the cronies who work for him seem to be an unsavoury bunch, but there's no evidence at all that their politics or their advice have had a negative effect on his administration.  The improvements to London's transport system effected by Livingstone have been spectacular, against all odds, and there's more to do, which he shows every sign of doing.  His plans for financing tube modernisation, deliberately frustrated by Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer, have turned out to be enlightened and right, as against Brown's which have proved an expensive flop.  His housing policies are practical and progressive.  His influence on policing policies and practices in London has been strikingly positive.  Even the Evening Standard with its squalid defamations has failed to lay a glove on him in policy terms;  and its personal vilifications can be dismissed as completely irrelevant.

So the choice is not hard, even if you regard it as being between two undesirables:  political choices are often a matter of selecting the lesser of two evils, or the least of several.   And there's no escaping it.  If you vote for a third candidate — the Green, for example, or the relatively inoffensive LibDem candidate, the former policeman — and if also you don't give your second preference to Livingstone, you are in effect voting for Johnson for mayor, since you will be withholding your vote from the only candidate who can beat him.  The same applies if you don't vote at all, or if you spoil your ballot paper:  you might just as well vote for Johnson.  There's only one way to help save London from potential disaster on a grand scale, and that's to give your first, or at any rate your second, preference to Livingstone.  Hold your nose while you do it, if you must:  but for London's sake, do it!


7 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    If you vote for a third candidate — the Green, for example, or the relatively inoffensive LibDem candidate, the former policeman — and if also you don't give your second preference to Livingstone, you are in effect voting for Johnson for mayor, since you will be withholding your vote from the only candidate who can beat him.

    Well put. I wish there was less widespread incomprehension of this strange not-quite-STV voting system; I'm still seeing people say they'll vote Green (say) for their second preference but not their first, which is essentially the same as not casting a second preference at all.

    Brian writes:  Exactly.  A second preference vote for a candidate who is obviously going to be eliminated along with all the other candidates except the two with the most first-preference votes is a complete waste of time (unless one of them already has more than half of them, which is unlikely);  they will all be eliminated,  leaving Livingstone and Johnson.  Which of those two wins will then depend on which collects more second-preference votes from the eliminated candidates.  If you cast your first preference vote for either Livingstone or Johnson, there's absolutely no point in casting a second preference vote at all, because your second preference vote is only counted if your first preference candidate is eliminated (through not coming first or second on first preferences).  But unless Livingston or Johnson gets 51 per cent of the first preference votes at the outset, all the candidates except them will be eliminated, leaving only those two front runners:  ergo your second preference vote for any of the others will never be used.  The only way to help to reduce the risk of Johnson being elected to run London for four years is to vote for Livingstone, ideally as your first preference, but if not that, as your second preference.  All else is a waste of pencil lead and a gift to the ghastly 'Boris'.

  2. david says:

    how does someone supporting other than mayoral election (one can follow the argument to vote for Ken): how about labour supporters voting Green in the Greater London Assembly where Labour does not hold the existing seat?

    Brian writes: An interesting question.  I confess that I haven't focused on the GLA election, which I should have done.  Any advice from anyone, please?  It might be worthwhile reading this study (PDF) before Thursday. 

    PS:  Further research suggests that it's much simpler.  There are no first or second preferences to worry about.  You vote for the candidate of the party of your choice (Labour, obviously!) in the ballot for the 'constituency' (borough or pair of boroughs) where you live: e.g., Leonie Cooper in the Merton and Wandsworth constituency; and separately you choose the party (not an individual candidate) for the all-London seats (used to top up the constituency seats from party lists so as to achieve rough proportionality).  Thus if you're voting Labour for the all-London seats you simply put your cross opposite 'Labour Party'.  You have just one vote for the constituency seat and just one vote, on a separate ballot form, for the all-London seats.  It's all explained pretty clearly in the official booklet about voting procedures and with the lists of candidates that you can download and read here (PDF file).  Because of the element of proportionality, it's probably best to vote for the candidates of your party in the constituency ballot and for the party of your choice in the all-London ballot regardless of who holds the constituency seat at present:  in other words, there's basically no scope for tactical voting, although you're free to split your votes if you can work out a way to make them count more effectively!

  3. Ian says:

    I agree with most of what you say, except that, with the alternative vote system, you can vote for exactly who you would really prefer with your first vote, and then vote for the least awful of the two inevitable finalists (Ken and Boris) with your second vote. It's like the French presidential election without having to go and vote again 2 weeks later. (Of course the French famously forgot in 2002 that it's necessary for enough people to vote in the first round for the two "main" candidates, but as you say it's inevitable that the last two standing in London will be Ken and Boris.)  The much more serious problem is the GLA, where the proportional system used for distributing the seats from the London-wide party list vote (that's your "peach" coloured ballot paper…) means that there's the risk that an extreme candidate could slip in if enough people don't vote for the main parties. 

    Brian writes: Thanks, Ian, for two penetrating points.  Both usefully point up the case for casting all four votes on all three multi-coloured ballot forms for major party candidates and a major party;  there are risks, as you say, in using any of these votes to make worthy, feel-good political gestures (support for minority or single-issue candidates, for example) that won't affect the outcome except just possibly in the opposite of the way you intend.

  4. Liam says:

    If you are voting Ken for first preference it's important to vote for the Green as second preference either a) to support them because you believe in it and/or b) to ensure that the BNP don't come in 4th.

    Liam Curran

    Brian writes:  Thanks, Liam.  But I'm afraid that if you give your first preference to Ken Livingstone (as I strongly recommend, not least as the best way to help to keep Boris Johnson out) there's no point in casting your second preference vote for the Green or anyone else, because Livingstone's second preferences will never be re-allocated.  (Nor will Johnson's.)  Since he and Johnson are bound to come first and second on first preferences, all the others will be eliminated and have their second preferences re-allocated, either Livingstone or Johnson will win (depending on which gets the greater number of first and second preferences combined) and their second preference votes will be redundant.   

  5. Matt says:

    How very glad I am to not live in London.

    The gladiatorial fight between Ken "been there run it" L. and Boris "new broom (read never run anything in my life before)" J. has been great fun to watch.

    To think that Boris could become the single most powerful Tory in the land is possibly the most surreal turn out that one could imagine.

    In many ways a victory for Boris could turn into something of a pyrrhic victory for the Tories if (and it is a big if) he turns out to be, well, crap at the job. In this event he would tar the old Etonian shadow cabinet , damage the Cameron approach and give New Labour potent weapon with which to bash the Tories.

    Of course if he turns out  (against expectations) to be a talented administrator, able  man manager and inspirational leader then I doubt that this will particularly provide a further boost the Tories nationally however London will benefit.

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this.  I suppose it's possible that if Johnson, heaven forbid, is elected mayor on Thursday and makes an unholy mess of the job, it would have a certain beneficial side-effect of helping to discredit the Tories nationally and might damage their chances of winning the next general election.  (That is reportedly the scenario that Cameron and his chums really dread, although they might have thought of that before they picked Johnson, of all people, as their candidate.)  But (a) I suspect that if elected, Johnson will be largely a figure-head mayor, and that the show will be run in practice by a gang of shady figures parachuted in by Conservative Central Office to do the party leadership's bidding and permanently to padlock the gag that they have put on Boris's mouth throughout the campaign;  and (b) the price that Londoners would pay for four years of government of their, our, city by either Johnson or his nameless minders would be far too high for any benefit that might accrue from their failures.  Still, it's always good to look for the silver lining, I suppose. 

  6. Lee Baker says:

    It should be stressed that, peddling the line that 'only Ken can beat Boris,' is the way that Ken tries to squeeze out Brian Paddick's vote.

    Ken doesn't have a divine right to the left-of-centre vote, with the fairer voting system it's NOT a simple choice between him and the Thatcherite, as he puts it. There are legitimate reasons for not being happy with the way Ken's been running the city, and it's our democratic right to say 'we don't like you, and we don't like Boris either'.

    We need to smash this restrictive two-party system that keeps giving us a choice between tweedle dum and tweedle dummer.

    A vote for Brian Paddick as first choice is NOT a vote for Boris, even if a second vote isn't given to Ken, it neither gives Boris one more vote, nor Ken.

    Brian writes:  Lee, thanks, but I'm afraid that it's impossible for you to dodge the brutal fact that on Thursday it's either going to be Johnson or it's going to be Livingstone.  There are many opportunities for you to voice your views about Livingstone and his record, about the two-party system, about left-of-centre alternatives to Livingstone, and about your dislike of both Livingstone and Johnson:  but the election for mayor on Thursday isn't one of them.  Nor can you avoid the reality that if you withhold your vote (first or second preference, it doesn't much matter which) from the only candidate who can beat Johnson, you are making it that bit more likely that Johnson, as the challenger, will win.  They are so different from each other, with utterly different records and experience and different programmes and projects for the future of London, that you can't seriously find it difficult to choose which one of the two you think the less likely to be a disaster for London.  You can dislike both, but you still have to decide which you dislike the less, because however you vote (or even if you don't vote at all), it will affect the outcome.  (Please also see my comments on your opening salvo, in the second half of a new post at 

  7. Matt says:


    Thanks for your reply. On figureheads I wonder just how viable it would be for Boris to be a figurehead only. Legally he would personally have the yay or nay on so many issues it could become impossible to neuter him, especially as he will be balancing his own career interest against the party interest and may well decide that the former is more important. And even in contexts were a role is understood as a figurehead that person has often wielded a large amount of power. For example George III's promotion of William Pitt the younger to become first lord of the treasury (accidentally inventing the role of PM in the process) and am I not correct in thinking that the monarchy had a big hand in forcing two elections over the 1909 peoples budget?

    Brian writes:  Thanks, Matt.  I don't know about William Pitt the younger, but you're probably right about Johnson.  All the more reason to dread the prospect of Johnson running London for the next four years — and for doing everything possible to avert that outcome tomorrow, principally by voting for Livingstone with either first preference vote or at worst with the second.