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Boris Johnson's 'blond ambition' for London

HOPEFUL: Boris Johnson

WHEN BORIS Johnson announced his intention to run for mayor of one of the world’s most multicultural cities, the mop-haired Old Etonian’s dream was quickly shot down.

How could a Conservative candidate from a background as privileged as his meet London’s needs where gaps in wealth are acute and 40 percent of the population is Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME)?

In 2007, when Compass – a Labour think-tank – unearthed a Daily Telegraph column in which Johnson referred to “flag-waving picaninnies” and “tribal warriors [breaking] out in watermelon smiles”, it was trumpeted as evidence of his out-of-touch credentials.

Hackney MP Diane Abbott was among the first to bite, attacking what she called Johnson’s “1950s attitude to race”.

Fast-forward four years, Johnson has nearly completed his first term of the £143,000-a-year post, but has he done enough to convince Londoners to give him a second?

“It was a very tough time”, recalls Johnson. “I remember sometimes being a bit daunted by the negative stuff. People were saying I couldn’t be a mayor for London and I couldn’t unify the city.”

“Look”, says Johnson wearily, and eager to put the issue to bed, “We’re in an electoral cycle now and people are going to start cutting up rough and beating me up again, but if you look at the record, the commitment we’ve shown, we can be very proud of the work we’ve done to help young people across London; to create apprenticeships to drive the jobs market and keep investment in London.”

VIOLENCE

The mayor ticks off what he considers his successes: hosting community conversations in boroughs across London and a £2m fund to strengthen black supplementary schools.

Crime is down, the murder rate in London is now quarter of what it was when he took over, numbers of young people being killed on the city’s streets has been roughly cut in half and youth violence is down.

“These are things that really affected people in black and minority ethnic community groups. It was a massive issue in 2008”, he adds.

“Terrible time. Terrible time”, mumbles Ray Lewis, Johnson’s black former deputy mayor for young people, who had been silently overlooking the interview with Johnson in his capacity as the mayor’s unofficial chaperone.

He is, officially, the mayor’s unpaid mentoring ambassador who can be seen accompanying Johnson on various engagements – particularly where black people are in a 10-metre radius.

But for all the highs on the policing front, Londoners may not easily forget how, within months of being elected, Johnson stripped the long-running Rise festival of its anti-racist theme. The following year, he scrapped financial support for it altogether.

CONTROVERSY

Then, there was a budget slash to City Hall’s support for Black History Month – from £76,000 to a meagre £10,000. In 2011, the London Schools and the Black Child Conference – an initiative started by Abbott in 2002 and funded by ex-mayor Ken Livingstone – was embroiled in controversy when Johnson decided to take ‘black’ out of the title.

So what will become of the Notting Hill Carnival currently in turmoil following the resignation of the two co-directors who claim the festival’s future is unsustainable without more cash support?

On this point, Johnson is unwavering in his commitment to the event he refers to as a “huge credit” to London.

He continues: “Notting Hill Carnival is in my family. I went to it as a teenager. I support it and I am sorry to see the changes on the board and understand there are some difficulties there."

But Johnson’s idea of support is not the kind you can take from City Hall coffers.

“The key difference between me and the previous mayor [Livingstone]”, says Johnson, “is that I don’t believe in wasting people’s money.

“I don’t believe in taking taxpayer [money] and squirting it at problems. In the last couple of years, I have raised £100m in private sponsorship for schemes across London.”

DIVERSITY

Does that mean he believes that investing in multi-cultural events like carnival is a waste of money, or that he doesn’t value cultural diversity enough to spend on it?

“What can you possibly mean by that? I am completely committed”, says Boris with a challenge so forceful it brushes comedy.

“We are going to have a Notting Hill Carnival – I give you that guaranteed. What I’m saying is there are all sorts of ways to make that happen.”

Taking another swipe at his closest rival, Ken Livingstone, he adds: “We can mourn festivals, cuts to cultural programmes…but you’ve got to govern in a way that’s respectful to people’s tax contributions.

“Under Livingstone, council tax for a Band D household went up by £963 – that’s a huge amount of money. We have cut it in real terms and that’s a big difference.”

Johnson pledged to keep police numbers high, approximately 33,000, and said that spending is being prioritised for transport infrastructure which is “absolutely vital for creating jobs and the future prosperity of the city”, and directly affects black Londoners.

His grand designs for celebrating London’s diversity is his pet project ‘Team London” which has already enlisted 8,000 ambassadors – over half of whom are from Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

The ambassadors will be on hand to welcome people during London 2012 and to direct them to the nearest cash point or Tube station.

That’s all well and good – but when the glare of the international media disappears, will initiatives celebrating diversity disappear with them?

“I hope people won’t say that", says Johnson. "If you look at what we’re doing with policing, significant numbers of BAME candidates are being recruited and we need to drive that through the ranks to senior ranks. I’ve made that point many times in MPA [Metropolitan Police Authority] meetings and other contexts.”

The biggest shadow over Johnson’s record has been the delay of his flagship mentoring project. This is being spearheaded by Ray Lewis, and aims to turn around the fortunes of 1,000 young black men, at risk of school exclusion or crime, by pairing them with mentors.

To date, the £1.3m programme has only delivered 62 pairings against a target of 180.

The disappointing figure is even more of a blow when the preferred bidder – a consortium of experienced black mentoring organisations – lost out to a pitch led by the University of East London.

Johnson said: “I won’t hide it from you that it’s an ambitious project and it’s something that’s going to take longer to deliver than I want.

“In spite of the teething problems, difficulties with the procurement process, and all the rest of it, it’s still right that when a young person is capable of having their life turned round to give them a chance. So I say to those who want more, and expect more, please, please, please stick with the project.”

With opinion polls alleging that Johnson and Livingstone are currently neck-and-neck to win the election in May, the sitting mayor must hope black Londoners are ready to believe him.

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