The four main candidates for Mayor of London faced off on Wednesday night in a heated debate ahead of the May 3 elections. Broadcaster Clive Anderson chaired a discussion between Conservative incumbent Boris Johnson, Labour veteran Ken Livingstone, Liberal Democrat hopeful Brian Paddick, and Green Party candidate Jenny Jones – with each alternately cheered, jeered and heckled by a lively audience.
Hundreds watched Livingstone accuse the standing Mayor of “catastrophic misjudgement” in failing to return from holiday soon enough during the riots, in what the Johnson called a “vey low” attempt to “play politics” with the tragedy.
Livingstone raised loud applause from the audience: “If you loved this city you’d want to be here when things go wrong.” Johnson protested that he had been far from communications or airports and had returned as quickly as he could.
But the Labour candidate and former Mayor of eight years drew his own controversy when Anderson probed him about his tax affairs, accusing him of paying less tax by routing his money through a private company.
The argument caused uproar against Livingstone in the crowd and led to questions about whether the election has become personal, with Johnson defending a foul-mouthed attack on Livingstone in a lift last week in which he accused him of being a “f***ing liar”.
Johnson said: “I felt entitled to correct him in a pithy and frank way.”
Transport and fares also divided the candidates. Livingstone attacked Johnson’s fare hikes and noted that London has the highest public transport fares in Europe. Johnson argued that Livingstone’s claimed “surplus” was “complete codswallop” and said a fare freeze would endanger future investment in infrastructure.
Johnson repeatedly asked Livingstone: “Where will the money come from?” He told the audience his rival would “showboat…and run the whole ship into the rocks” if elected. But the debate was deluged with contrasting figures and claims from both sides, causing Anderson to remark that he didn’t know who to trust.
All three opposition candidates condemned Johnson’s record on air pollution, while Livingston promised to issue smog alerts if elected.
Johnson took the opportunity to display his wide vocabulary throughout the night, accusing Livingstone of “truckling” (behaving obsequiously; submitting) and of seeking to divide communities in pursuit of “obscure, cynical psephological calculations” (psephology is the science of balloting).
As policing entered the frame, the Labour and Conservative candidates disputed each other’s figures, while Jones claimed that an obsession with the number of police officers was distracting focus from a well-rounded, effective force.
Paddick, a former deputy assistant commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, said cuts should be made to senior officers perks including the six who have “luxury apartments”.
Independent candidate Siobhan Benita stood from the crowd to ask whether, in light of her odds improving and predicting she will come third in the race, she should have been invited. Paddick was the only candidate to strongly say “it would have been good to have Siobhan up here”.