The Public Gallery: What Croydon’s politicians could learn from Boris Johnson

By - Thursday 13th March, 2014

This week, Britain’s favourite politician visited Croydon. Wading through the controversy, Tom Black ponders whether our local councillors and hopefuls could take a few lessons from ‘BoJo’

Boris Johnson is often described as, among other things, ‘a legend’. This week, the legend landed in Croydon. There was some controversy over the circumstances – the event at which he was speaking has a £10 ticket price and was an obvious party fundraiser, but some people objected to the widespread circulation of the ‘invitations’, which saw them reach people outside the local Tory party. But now that the dust has settled and London’s Mayor is long-gone (much like his third or fourth promise to extend Tramlink to Crystal Palace), I’m taking the opportunity to consider what lessons can be taken from Boris’ meteoric rise from backbench joke to The Next Leader Of The Conservative Party™.

Don’t be afraid of looking clever

In the age of Nigel ‘I’m A Public Schoolboy And Former Stockbroker, But I Drink Pints And Smoke Cigarettes So I’m Just Like You’ Farage, politicians can be forgiven for a temptation to want to appear as painfully in-touch with the ‘common man’ as possible. I’d hoped a change of government in 2010 would at least mean the days of Gordon Brown claiming to like the Arctic Monkeys were long gone. But George Osborne still tweets photo opportunities with burgers, and David Cameron feels the need to provide sketchy details of the last time he bought a pasty (what is it with these people and food?).

Closer to home, barely a day goes by without some Croydon politician or other talking about the other lot being ‘out of touch’ or stressing how local/ordinary/diverse they themselves are.

Boris, by contrast, makes much of his admiration for Pericles, quotes Latin whenever he can, and makes disturbing implications about people with low IQs. And he still wins elections, including two in a row against a man who made public transport such a priority as mayor that he avoided using a car whenever possible. Say what you like about Ken Livingstone, he had more ‘man of the people’ creds than Boris. And he still lost. Twice.

(In the interests of balance and even-handedness, here is a picture of Boris Johnson enjoying a pint. In Croydon, no less.)

Nobody likes a suck-up

One encouraging fact about the slate of candidates from both parties in this year’s elections is the diversity of age groups. Young blood is finally being injected into the Town Hall. But young blood is meaningless if it doesn’t bring with it some Young Turks. New candidates on both sides are (so far) playing the same game as their predecessors, following careful party lines and tweeting about great responses on #genericdoorsteps.

Boris Johnson and his brother Leo, on apparently raucous form. Image by Financial Times. Used under Creative Commons Licence.

Just as polls show Boris is the most popular active politician in the UK, they also show the most popular retired one is often Tony Benn. Benn (whose granddaughter is standing in West Thornton) was a regular thorn in the side of the Labour leadership from about 1980 onwards. Boris, while more subtle about it, gleefully allows himself to be portrayed as the voice of those Conservatives unhappy with David Cameron’s leadership – while carefully maintaining London-compatible views on immigration and Europe.

Tony Benn failed (by a whisker) to win the Labour deputy leadership in 1981, and lost his 1988 challenge to Neil Kinnock for the leadership. Boris, by contrast, is apparently in pole position to win the leadership of his party some time this decade. Confusingly to some, the Conservatives have always been a party more forgiving of boat-rockers than the loyalty-obsessed Labour. Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill both took over the party after becoming known as fierce critics of their leadership.

Can the same be said in Croydon? The recent deselection of Conservative councillor Justin Cromie, one of the few councillors to rebel against his party’s official line in recent times, suggests otherwise. Our town hall machine isn’t quite Tammany Hall, but it’s strangling any maverick tendency that may exist. Boris isn’t actually particularly radical – he’s far too shrewd to genuinely threaten to upset the apple cart. But his public image and success shows that voters love it when a politician at least appears to take a stand or speaks their mind. Any party in Croydon that allowed its councillors more freedom to do so could well reap rich electoral rewards.

The limits of this comparison

You didn’t think I was going to let myself get away with this, did you? Sorry, I can see you’ve been itching to scroll down and write a nicely scathing comment to the tune of ‘Boris Johnson is a single individual running for one, directly-elected office. His personal brand works very well for him, but building a successful case for a group of councillors to win an election is an entirely different kettle of fish’.

Allow me to save you the bother: you’re right. The Mayor of London is a directly-elected position, and Boris just has to maintain his own finely-crafted public image, stage-managed blunders and all. Messrs Fisher and Newman have a much harder task, not least because (no disrespect to either man) a huge proportion of Croydon’s voters will have no idea who either one of them is on 22nd May. Many will not even know who their ward’s candidates are. Croydon’s voters aren’t engaging in a personal contest. They’re electing a team.

But what lessons can be taken from the irresistible rise of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson? (That really is his name.) I’d say that the above observations about polished, machine politicians and candidates are valuable to anyone, at any level of government. ‘Party-line android’, ‘never had a proper job’ and ‘they’re all the same’ are three of the most common and most damaging accusations levelled at politicians in Croydon and around the country. If our next lot of councillors takes just one pointer from Boris Johnson, I’d hope it would be ‘let your hair down’.

I don’t want to see Croydon’s councillors and candidates mucking about on zip-lines or giving speeches where they disclose their favourite Athenian senator. A council of Boris-clones would be a dystopia I would not feel comfortable raising children in. But let’s loosen the leash a little bit. If nothing else, it would make full council meetings much more interesting.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    Boris was extremely amusing on Tuesday. Fantastic sense of humour! It was a shame the “youthful anarchist” and his chums tried to disrupt things, but they didn’t get away with it.

  • Stephen Mann

    Interesting read Tom. I think the nature of the individual offices of council vs mayor is a very important point and glad that you did touch upon it. The Mayor has been built by Ken and Boris to be a larger than life position and the inadequacies of the GLA (STV yet special majority required to defeat the Mayor which is never achieved). Who replaces them will be stepping into some massive shoes and it will be interesting to see how this goes. On the other hand being a Cllr is what one makes of it from a cash cow to a part-time job to a livelihood in some cases. Sadly, such characters are not to be typically found in local government due to this reason.

    Finally, on the point regarding rebellion and dissent it is worth looking at the Tory selections by using fear for their seat as a whipping exercise, many incumbent parties have used this trick country-wide in the past. Where should rebels rebel, in public (and appear to be divided i.e. Blears and Purnell or backstage? Benn, Thatcher and Churchill despite all being rebels were very much products of their time (Benn off the back of a militant push, Thatcher a Tory party in need of reinvention, and Churchill off the back of Labour), historically Herbert Morrison often rebelled and was shot back time after time.

    An interesting debate without a real answer!

  • David White

    I think Boris’ success (so far!) is down to the following:-
    1. Taking up 2 or 3 popular ideas and implementing them, eg replacement Routemaster bus and the “Boris bikes”.
    2. Having a genuine love and enthusiasm for London.
    3. Being seen as “amusing” in a “Have I Got News For You” kind of way.
    4. Distancing himself from the difficult decisions being made by his colleagues in Government.
    However I am by no means certain that Boris would have won a third term as Mayor. He is becoming more identified with unsuccessful policies and is having to make difficult decisions. During the recent tube strike I was discussing his record with a London taxi driver. The cabbie was furious that Boris had broken his word on not closing ticket offices and thought that was the main cause of the strike.
    Don’t let’s forget that Ken Livingstone also won his first 2 elections as Mayor. Boris would have found it hard to win a third, and might find the transition to being a contender for the leadership of his party a less easy ride than he’s had so far. He wasn’t overly successful as an MP on the last occasion.
    Finally, don’t forget what Tony Benn (or was it Enoch Powell?) said: “All political careers end in failure”.