Boris Johnson became London’s mayor last week, fulfilling a prophecy of doom made on this blog some time ago. I worried then that it would be the ‘ironic’ vote that made the difference, but it appears that it was the ‘tory doughnut’ what won it. The possible effects of part-time TV presenter, editor, jester and MP Boris de Pfeffel Johnson winning the largest democratic mandate in the UK are unpredictable at best, but London is not alone in electing an unlikely mayor to the second most powerful post in the country. The people of London should perhaps look 1,174 miles to the south-east, to Tirana, capital city of Albania.
In 2000, former conceptual artist Edi Rama was elected to be mayor of one of the worlds most depressed cities and was re-elected last year to his third four year term. Edi ran for office on a platform that promised to bring his aesthetics to bear on politics – promising to paint much of Tirana’s decaying Stalinist architecture in yellow, green and violet, a project that he followed through on once taking power. In a similar manner to Boris, a few high profile screwball ideas have served as camouflage for a fairly conservative programme of improvements to infrastructure, a tough stance on crime and crowd pleasers like pledging to rid the city of litter. Despite describing his job as “the highest form of conceptual art” and calling himself “a pop star amongst mayors but a mayor amongst pop stars”, he has proved both popular and effective, transforming the city and winning a huge 61% of the most recent popular vote.
What can we learn from Edi Rama that might helps us to think through the enigma of Boris? Maybe that eccentricity is not necessarily a marker of a lack of real ideas, but I’m being generous here. Boris has a lot to prove and might yet scupper the ‘new tory’ project, but if he confines himself, like Ken before him, to symbolic leadership and allows the largely self-regulating (for better or worse) city to carry on as usual, we might get some nicely painted new buses.