Yesterday evening I attended Boris Johnson’s People’s Question Time in the pugilistic splendour of Bethnal Green’s York Hall. The evening was chaired by Labour’s John Biggs who sported an air of good-humoured antagonism towards the Mayor throughout. The audience followed suit, booing Boris as he stood up to speak but being otherwise fairly genial.
Boris began by listing the achievements of his tenure to date; the Freedom Pass, the Oysterisation of the transport network, a bicycle hire scheme, Crossrail and Tube modernisation. Weren’t all these schemes instituted by Ken Livingstone, I asked politely? A typical Boris dodge followed. “Umm, I didn’t quite see you, but I’m sure the question was meant benevolently, so we’ll move on”, he mumbled.
The real answer was given by John Biggs, who said Boris “took all the credit for the improvements and blamed the government for the problems”. Boris failed to give a convincing explanation for the traffic chaos during the snow last month, and his claims to be a champion of cyclists rang hollow when the audience complained about the scheme to allow motorcyclists into bus lanes and the lack of investment in the cycle network.
A popular topic during the meeting was knife crime. The BNP’s Richard Barnbrook, suggested custodial sentences for all those caught in possession of knives. He was quickly shouted down by members of the prison service in the audience who explained from their own experience “prison doesn’t work”.
On housing, Johnson was asked a direct question about whether he would stick to his election pledge of building 50,000 affordable homes in the capital. “I am optimistic . . . but the figure will be hard to reach due to the state of the market”, he said. A simple ‘no’ would have sufficed.
However, the question which really seemed to flummox Boris was whether all the feral cats on the Olympics’ site had been caught. You can rest easy; apparently they have.
It was obvious that Boris didn’t have Ken’s detailed knowledge about London, and he often asked questioners to send him more information so he could help at a later date. But such response often successfully deflected and satisfied questioners, a particular skill of his it seems. This, coupled with an apparent drift to the centre and the continuation of a number of Ken’s policies in the capital, means that Labour will need a mayoral candidate who engages directly with voters and their concerns to be elected in 2012. A fact worryingly evidenced by the 60% approval rating Boris received in a somewhat unscientific electronic poll conducted at the end of the evening.