Ken Livingstone - AP - 2008
Ken Livingstone, March 18, 2008. Photo by AP
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Tom Watson, the deputy chairman of the Labor Party and coordinator of the local elections campaign, had some original advice for his party's supporters in London. In a radio interview last week, he said, "Those Labor voters thinking of going to vote for Boris, hold your nose, vote for Ken... that's the way that you will help Labor." When the interviewer pressed him for more reasons to vote for the party's candidate and veteran left-wing firebrand, Ken Livingstone, who was mayor of London for eight years before he was beaten four years ago by the Conservative Boris Johnson, he said "he's got a lovely dog."

Labor's leaders are frustrated. On the face of it, their situation has not been better since losing the general elections two years ago. The Conservative-Liberal coalition is paralyzed by infighting; the government is facing a deep recession, stuck with a deeply unpopular budget and charges of improper dealing with the media empire of Rupert Murdoch. Prime Minister David Cameron's popularity ratings are plummeting and the Conservative Party is at its lowest point in the polls for eight years. In London their situation is even worse, with Labor leading them in the polls by 20 percent.

And still, despite the deep losses being predicted for the Tories Thursday in local elections across the United Kingdom, in the most prestigious contest - the London mayoral race - all the polls are giving the victory to the Conservative incumbent Johnson. His lead over Livingstone ranges, according to the polls, from four to twelve percent, with the candidates of smaller parties and independents not polling more than a few points each.

How has the arch-Conservative Johnson succeeded in remaining popular while his party is crashing? Well, it's not because the voters prefer his policies. There is not that much difference between his plans and those of Livingstone – both promise more investment in transportation, housing and the Metropolitan Police Force and to fight the government over cuts in funding for the capital. If at all, the voters seem to like Livingstone's emphasis on helping hard-off Londoners, while Johnson is more interested in safeguarding the interests of the financial sector wealth-creators. You would expect that in a period of economic hardship, that would ensure Livingstone's victory.

Johnson's ascendancy is rooted in the contrast between the images of the two candidates, which seem to trump party loyalties and financial considerations. They are two of the most colorful figures in the grey climate of current British politics, but it is Johnson who sparkles with stardust. The former successful journalist, with the proclivities of a standup comedian, has a bi-partisan appeal. His unleashed tongue has repeatedly got him into trouble, his serial infidelities been widely chronicled by the tabloids, and the claims that he has not been working very hard as mayor, have failed to dim that appeal. At 47, he is still an eternal roguish schoolboy, with a wild blond bouffant and an even wilder sense of humor, hiding a sharp intellect and analytic mind.

Beside him, Livingstone, a central player in local London politics for nearly four decades, is seen as "yesterday's man," grouchy and twenty years older than Johnson. While Londoners, according to the polls, believe that Livingstone achieved more than his rival as mayor, they overwhelmingly would prefer to have a beer with Johnson. Livingstone has a record of scandalous statements as well, but on his case, Londoners are less forgiving. Especially the members of the Jewish community and the homosexual groups who are angry at the way Livingstone has been cozying up to the Muslim voters, who are around ten percent of the electorate.

Some in Labor still believe that Livingstone can win, thanks to his Muslim voters. "His people are working very hard in East London," a veteran party organizer said this week. "You don’t see it in the media, but he's in there strong." This week, the London Police announced that it would be guarding ballots in the eastern Tower Hamlets neighborhood, where a high proportion of immigrants live, due to suspicion of fraud. Labor would though prefer another candidate, less polarizing and without historical baggage, would have won the internal party elections. In that case, they would not have had to ask their supporters to "hold their noses."

The Conservative leadership, eager for some good news in the shape of a win in the main fight today, is also uncomfortable. In his four years as mayor, he did not hold his fire on his own party's ministers, including Prime Minister Cameron, especially after last summer's London riots, when he blamed him for cutting the number of police officers. Cameron knows that for Johnson, the mayor's office is only a stepping-stone to Downing Street and in a few years, will be challenging him for the leadership of the party.