Only one week remains until London's Mayoral elections. There are also elections for the London Assembly next Thursday, but nobody's really going on about that. Instead the focus has been on the battle for the big job, and specifically the two men most likely to end up in charge.
2016 is the first Ken Livingstone-free Mayoral election, plus the last two also had Boris, so there is a sense that something's missing on the towering personality front. This year's candidates are less charismatic, less of an obvious figurehead for London, which makes it rather more difficult to choose between them. Indeed, even at this stage, I still haven't decided which one of them I'm going to vote for. I know who's getting my second preference, the one that really counts, but my first preference is still very much up for grabs.
There are many ways to decide who to vote for. Many people always vote for the same party no matter what, some vote tactically to keep one candidate out, while others go with gut instinct rather than any attempt to engage with policy. I'm a policy man myself, because I like to know what the next four years might be like if a particular Mayor came to power. More to the point, I prefer to vote for someone who isn't going to do something I think stupid, which means I'm looking for the best candidate with the fewest red lines. Whoever that is.
If you bother to read the manifestos of the four main candidates, they're jam-packed with good stuff. Pick a random promise in a random manifesto and it's probably a good thing, even something that should have happened long ago. Better controls on housing, improved facilities for cycling, action on air pollution, they're all saying very similar kinds of thing. If only our elected mayor actually did half of what they promised, what a great city this would be. But lurking in amongst the slamdunk ideas are statements that make me tut, or cuss, or sigh, and I wonder why I should offer my vote to someone who's pledged to do that to London.
Sadiq Khan's red line is his headline pledge to freeze fares for the full term of his mayoralty. It's an eyecatching policy, indeed an undoubted vote winner, but is it wise? A fast expanding city needs more transport, adequately funded, if the capital's not to start choking up. A real terms cut in revenue isn't going to help future Londoners get around, and Khan's expectation of finding internal efficiency savings won't necessarily wash. Is TfL really a bloated organisation, indeed after the government cuts of the last six years how can it be? Sadiq comes over as the austerity candidate, pushing an unexpectedly cost-cutting agenda, while his main opponent refuses to rule out fare rises to fund investment, which is surely a much more a Labour thing to do.
Zac Goldsmith's manifesto is littered with red lines, at least in my book. He wants to make it much harder for tube workers to strike. He wants to introduce a snoopers' app, a Virtual Neighbourhood Watch. He refuses to fix a specific proportion of affordable homes in new developments, claiming it's more important homes get built than that they're relatively cheap. He wants to build a Silvertown Tunnel and toll it, while filling our roads with electric cars. He plans to fund more police officers on the tube by cancelling the free travel passes enjoyed by families of TfL staff members (I tutted twice during that pledge). And he repeatedly says he wants to build on the great successes of Boris's eight year reign, which means a lot of his pledges are just things that are planned to happen anyway, which suggests a singular lack of vision. So no, Zac was never going to get my vote.
In contrast, Sian Berry's Green manifesto reads like a checklist of right-on egalitarian ideas. Renters' rights, a Bank for London, a laser focus on cutting air pollution, a lot of this sounds like a model for a considerably fairer city. We've got used to a hands-off wealth-friendly Mayor, and Sian would be very much the opposite. But is her long-term aspiration for a single London fare zone viable (for similar funding reasons to Sadiq's fare freeze)? And as for her idea to close City Airport and cover the site with homes and innovative industries, is that inspired or wilfully misguided? I'm nearly sold but, as with the other candidates, certain policies on the longlist rankle.
I've read Caroline Pidgeon's manifesto twice, and I can't see any obvious red lines. That's not bad for a 101 page document, indeed it's damned impressive. Let's slap a diesel levy on the Congestion Charge, let's Oysterise the cablecar, let's invest more in affordable housing, and let's scrap the Garden Bridge before it hijacks any more public money. There's a practicality about her list of pledges that's not so explicit elsewhere, a reflection of the years that Caroline has spent living the minutiae of London life as a member of the Assembly. By comparison Zac and Sadiq come across as politicians first and Londoners second, which maybe isn't what a complex capital city needs.
So my first preference for Mayor is going to be either Caroline or Sian, I haven't quite decided. One's eminently capable, with the electoral millstone of a LibDem label round her neck, and the other's more radically exciting, with the occasional flash of "oh hang on, really?". I've got a week, I'll make my decision by next Thursday, and will be quietly surprised with myself whichever lady it turns out to be.
Of course either Sadiq or Zac is going to win the election, a walkover for Sadiq if the bookies are correct, or a shock victory for Zac if Inner London fails to turn out on the day. So it would be pointless to give my second preference to anyone other than these two. Sorry to Caroline or Sian, but whichever of you doesn't get my first vote isn't going to get my second, because that's how the Supplementary Voting system works. 2016 is the Zac v Sadiq show, just as previous years boiled down simply to Ken v Boris. At least there's always the London Assembly ballot papers to help balance things out, which is where Sian and Caroline are most likely to be victorious anyway.
And I mention all of this not because I expect you to follow me, nor even to agree with me, but to point out how difficult it's been to choose a Mayor this year. The leading candidates lack stardust and soul, while those from the other parties are likely to be overlooked as people vote on reputation rather than policy. You vote for who you like, but remember to be an idealist on your first preference, and a realist on your second.