We are thrilled to publish Patrick Kingsley's first ToMax scribble. He was at the Mayoral Hustings with the London Citizens, ahead of the elections on May 3rd.
Another day, another Boris Johnson Latin lesson. "Londoners!" he told two thousand of them on Wednesday night. "I stand before you, trembling like Hercules before Eurystheus." Of course, Boris did anything but tremble. It was the latest in a series of hustings ahead of next Thursday's mayoral elections, and of the four candidates present, only Johnson seemed unburdened by the strains of a long and often bitter campaign.
The Greens' Jenny Jones wasn't as sharp as she can be. Brian Paddick, the Lib Dem, is a plodder by trade, and plodding by delivery. Ken seemed wearied even by the whoops of his own sizeable support.
But Boris was Boris. Buoyant, flippant, triumphant Boris. "If I am spared by the electoral reaper," he said beneath the vast organ at Westminster's Methodist Central Hall, "I want you know how much I have enjoyed working with you."
By "you", he didn't just mean Londoners. He meant this very specific set of Londoners. These were the London Citizens, a network of grassroots groups ranging from schools to housing associations, via churches, mosques and synagogues, that work together to campaign for city-wide social projects. The Living Wage is one. Safe zones for knife crime victims, better housing, and youth employment initiatives are some of the others.
They do inspiring work. In the east end, they've just secured Britain's first urban community land trust, an exciting new scheme that could eventually solve the country's housing crisis. (I wrote about it here.)
The hustings was itself a marker of the Citizens' growing influence. They are probably the only community group that can corral London's four leading politicians into one room for a debate on their own terms.
For the show was very much dictated by the Citizens themselves. In their speeches, the candidates had to focus almost solely on how much their manifestos differed from or agreed with the Citizens' own ideas for London.
Spliced between their efforts were a series of lively talks by the Citizens themselves. There were presentations on the capital's ills – "I was the only boy in my school to get work experience last year," said one Newham teenager. "If there had been more, would there have been riots?" – and performances, too. A boisterous choir sang Bill Withers' Lean on Me, a rendition that so invigorated Ray Lewis that Boris's disgraced former deputy lurched to his feet and tapped out the two-step. As the night went on, proceedings garnered the religious fervour of a gospel singalong. Will you uphold our values, senior Citizens were asked. "I will!" they chanted. Then it was the turn of the two thousand. Will we uphold those values? "WE WILL!"
This was, several people told the crowd, "politics as it should be."
Well, nearly. The candidates were still playing games. This was still an election campaign, and the opinions of London Citizens carry some weight, so no one dared disagree drastically with their proposals. To be fair, Brian Paddick tried to fence-sit. "If it is *possible* to do X," he'd say, "I will." But only Jenny Jones had any quibbles of note. She said London didn't have the money to provide free travel for all youngsters – and she got booed by a youthful audience for her trouble. Up next, Boris had taken note. "I am a font," he cried, "a geyser of assent to your proposals." Some laughed, but afterwards, it sounded like few believed him.
And this is Boris' problem. He is the most engaging of the candidates, and what was essentially an away crowd grudgingly warmed to him. But he's also the most flippant – and his jokes contrasted awkwardly with the serious and often tragic stories that bookended his speech. A grieving mum talked about her son Martin, who was stabbed to death yards from a police station. Barbara, a hotel cleaner, described how she gets paid just £3 a room. She was crying. Minutes earlier, Boris had been laughing. Clearly, he wasn't laughing at Barbara. But the contrast still jarred. Sometimes it seems like he doesn't take London seriously.
Which brings us back to Hercules. I often like it when Johnson makes use of his learning – but not in this case. Comparing himself to Hercules, he implied his work as mayor was akin to the 12 superhuman tasks Hercules carried out for a Greek king. At first, it seemed pompous; amusingly Boris sees himself as a Grecian demigod. Then it was patronising: the complete complexity of his metaphor, he surely knew, would have been lost on most people. (Including me: it took me two days to come up with the next bit.) Finally, it was downright alarming. Eurysteus (whom Boris used to signify Londoners) was a spiteful, ungrateful taskmaster, for whom Hercules only works out of necessity – as a means to an end. Is that really how Boris sees his electorate?
Patrick Kingsley (aka 'PK') is a feature-writer for the Guardian and freelancer. Earlier this year he was named one of the 'top five journalists to watch' by MHP. He edited Varsity newspaper while at Cambridge.