I had the pleasure (?) of attending last night’s Sky debate between the London mayoral candidates. It may not have been great but it was 1000% better than the Newsnight effort with the awful Paxman. And well done Sky for focusing mainly on policy and starting the questioning with housing (even though they didn’t pick my effort) and being the first media outlet to give housing and homelessness issues some air time.
It is extraordinary watching Boris Johnson in action from close quarters. I believe just luck gave him the central lectern on the show, but he acts as if he is the conductor of the orchestra and is allowed to speak whenever he wishes. He jabs his finger aggressively and talks more loudly than the others. He has this inner confidence and self-belief, arrogance is another word for it, similar to Cameron. They must put something in the water at Eton College that isn’t in the milk at state schools.
Showmanship gets him through his tricky moments. He makes a huge joke out of Anna Botting conflating the two candidates and calling him Brian Johnson, warming the audience with a joke about it not being a coalition thing. Even when not speaking he dominates the scene with his facial expressions and body language. But good stand up technique is different from being a good mayor.
With his media backing and a more disciplined party Johnson has become Teflon man. He responds to a criticism that his removal of cycling safety measures led to more cyclists being killed on the roads by making a joke about Ken Livingstone not even being able to ride a bike. My feeling is that if Ken had said that it would have been a headline on all the news last night and apologies would have been demanded.
But this is a housing blog. Boris made his usual claims about his affordable housebuilding achievements, even laying claim to have built a lot of social rent, but never admitting that all he has done is implement the programme that Ken left behind, funded by Gordon Brown. He talks about using GLA land without acknowledging that he has done rather less than Livingstone managed in this regard. He avoids the issue of rents and manages a strong statement about rough sleeping without owning up to having failed to meet his own solemn promise to eradicate it by the Olympics.
Ken focuses on private renting, his commitment to setting up a not-for-profit lettings agency to bring rents down and improve management, his campaign for a London Living Rent and his determination to tackle rogue landlords. He speaks with authority about building council houses again and describes his meeting earlier in the day with faith groups to discuss homelessness.
Brian Paddick makes a good statement with a personal touch because, unlike Boris, he seems to know what a rented home looks like. He mentions the growth in overcrowding and talks well about rough sleepers. He has a 10 year commitment on affordable housebuilding but ignores the fact that his party is part of a coalition that has cut the housing investment budget by over 60%.
Even spending 5 or 10 minutes talking about housing in a high profile programme like this leaves me feeling frustrated that the surface of the issue is barely scratched. Candidates rattle off a few headlines and even Ken’s killer housing stat – that Boris only started 56 affordable homes in the first six months of the year – fails to register in the staccato exchanges.
Sky News managed to put up the headline ‘Livingstone under attack’ which seems ludicrous given the debate – ‘Boris laughs off cyclist deaths’ would have been more appropriate.