We Made The Boring, Not Boring: London Mayor

Voters decided today that it will be Conservative Zac Goldsmith facing Labour’s Sadiq Khan in the election for Mayor of London in 2016.

As of this morning, we knew only two things about Zac Goldsmith.

  1. Goldsmith, Boris Johnson (the man he hopes to succeed as Mayor) and one of our editors have the same messy blonde hair.
  2. Our boss fancies him just a little bit.
Boris Johnson, Zak Goldsmith and SoR Editor

Yes, that is our office.

Put those two things together and you have a pretty awkward work situation on your hands. Moving on.

This wasn’t really good enough – seeing as our job is to break it all down simply so no one else has to. We’ve spent the day enlightening ourselves on why we have a mayor in the first place, what they’ve done for us in the past and what these two fresh mayoral candidates are offering.

Why do we have mayors?

City mayors didn’t exist in the UK, at least not the kind we actually vote for, until the year 2000. We have had Lord Mayors for hundreds of years, and that’s a whole different heap of old-timey crazy.

Since the year 2000, local authorities have been able to ask their residents whether or not they would like to have an elected mayor.

This was part of a decision to devolve powers to local government.

Devolution is a fancy word meaning the transfer of powers and responsibilities from central government in London to local authorities all over the UK – like if your mum put you in charge of some rabbits, and you had to make sure they all had fairly nice hutches but you also had to make sure the rabbits didn’t build any more hutches without your permission, make sure they can all get around to their rabbit-jobs efficiently and don’t commit too many rabbit-crimes.

Rabbit

Did the rabbit thing help?

Basically, a mayor is the head of a local authority who take over government responsibilities like housing and planning, waste and environment management, transport, policing, and economic growth. Did the rabbit thing make that any easier to understand?

If town residents vote in favour of having an elected mayor – which is what happened in London, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Lewisham, North Tyneside, Salford, Torbay and a bunch of other places – then the next step is to actually elect one.

In London, Labour’s Ken Livingstone was elected mayor for the first eight years, followed by Conservative and love-hateable maniac Boris Johnson for the next eight years.

Changes are a-coming, though. Come 2016 the London Mayor won’t be Ken or Boris but will either be Zak or Sadiq. It sounds like the lads from One Direction are taking over City Hall. There are other candidates from other parties, but TBH nobody expects them to get a look in.

Whoever is elected London Mayor in 2016 can expect a salary similar to a cabinet minister – currently just over £140,000.

What have mayors ever done for us?

The stuff brought in by the last two London mayors is actually stuff Londoners use every day.

Trying to cut down on London’s carbon emissions, Ken Livingstone introduced the congestion charge requiring road users in Central London on week days.

He also introduced the Oyster card and made it possible for same-sex couples to register their partnership. This last initiative paved the way towards UK-wide civil partnerships. Woop.

Boris Johnson banned alcohol on London transport – and there was a big party the night before this law came into effect.

He also completed Ken’s plan of introducing a public cycle hire scheme of 5,000 bikes across London – known as Boris bikes.

Bo-Jo also set up the Outer London Fund, offering a pot of money up to £50m to help create better local high streets.

Who will be our next mayor?

One of these two gents.

Sadiq Khan Portrait

Sadiq Khan MP

Sadiq Khan is Labour MP for Tooting, and won 59% of the vote which took place in tandem with the Labour leader selection. The ballot included full members of the Labour party, registered supporters and affiliated sections (trade unions and the like). Khan managed to win a decisive majority across all three of these sections.

Zac Goldsmith is Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston, and won 70.6% of the vote in a ballot which any Londoner over 18 could vote in for £1.

Zac Goldsmith MP

Zac Goldsmith MP

What issues are they pushing forward?

They’re both ploughing right in with housing and green policies as top of their agenda.

Both are bothered about swollen house prices pushing regular Londoners out of their own city – with this creating a divided and unequal situation like Paris or New York where the rich live in the centre and the poor live at the fringes.

Zac says we need to build more houses and change the way we build them.

Sadiq says we need to make sure Londoners get ‘dibs’ on new houses and backs a ‘London Living Rent’ which would see a certain number of properties in any new build charging rent equal to a third of the average wage in the area.

They’re both serious environmentalists. Both completely oppose the expansion of Heathrow Airport and put improving green spaces and the air Londoners breathe at the top of their if-elected to-do lists.

One thing they disagree on is the building of the Garden Bridge Boris Johnson has planned, which Sadiq Khan reckons is too hefty a cost on the public wallet. Zak reckons it’s OK. Woah guys this is way too much drama.

It’s mega early days, but right now the two candidates don’t seem all that different. At least in the sense that they’re focusing on exactly the same problems.

Yoda meme - patience you must have

We’ll have to see how this plays out.

To be fair, though, seeing as nearly 10,000 die each year in London because of air pollution and mental London house prices being twice the national average, neither candidate could really ignore these things.

The difference will probably be in how they tackle these issues. Again, though, early days.

Spot the difference

There are for sure lots of differences between these two guys. The BIGGEST difference is their backgrounds.

Sadiq Khan, was the son of a bus driver and seamstress, grew up on a south London council estate and slept in a bunk bed at his parents’ house while he trained to be a lawyer.

Zac Goldsmith is son of aristocracy, inherited £200 million from his father and was expelled from Eton for possessing cannabis.

So. Yeah. Different. Let’s see how this plays out.

What now?

Now you’re decoded on the London Mayor and the new candidates you can join the debate. If you don’t live in London, call up a mate who does and lecture them on devolution, cos YOLO. For those who live in London you can vote in the actual mayoral election as long as your are over 18 on the day of the election in May 2016 and can register to vote.

Registering to vote takes about 5 minutes – do it here.

While you’re at it, Subscribe to our newsletter and stay tuned for our breakdown of what was said at conference. Like and Follow for regular decoded news.

What should a refugee look like?

Not what you expected?

In the last few months, hundreds of thousands of people have arrived in Europe seeking asylum. Most of them are coming from Syria, although the majority of people fleeing the civil conflict there have remained in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

A number of countries, including Britain, followed Germany’s example of pledging to accept tens of thousands of refugees. Other states, like Hungary, have been doing all they can to put people off coming.

The reaction from the European public has varied from thousands offering refugees their homes to arson attacks on asylum shelters.

Some people have been confused though. How do we know all these people are really refugees?

A group of young men take a selfie having landed on Lesbos

Is this what a refugee should look like?

To many people, this group of men taking a selfie having landed on Lesbos don’t look like typical refugees. Pictured in the Daily Mail, They look too well-fed, too well-dressed. Their iPads are way too charged.

Meme depicting large muscled men with text over-laid saying refugees?

This meme showing refugees as body-builders is making the rounds

A torrent of images and memes like this have flooded the web showing these men to be hulking body-builders. The problem with this meme, Vice tell us, is that these images are not actually of Syrian refugees and were not actually taken in Europe, but we’ll let that one slide.

Quite a few UK public figures have been asking the same question. In his column for the Daily Mail, Peter Hitchens asked “You really think these crowds of tough young men chanting ‘Germany!’ in the heart of Budapest are ‘asylum-seekers’ or refugees’?

Boris Johnson commented in the Telegraph that the crowds of people trying to enter Germany “seem to be composed overwhelmingly of young, able-bodied men.”

The suggestion these two columnists are making is that these tough young men are not in fact refugees at all: They are economic migrants, attempting to slip illegally into Europe among the genuine refugees. They are not, the argument goes, fleeing war and persecution but simply looking for a more prosperous future. Basically – young strapping lads who want better jobs, not  refugees with rights to asylum,

That’s quite a big conclusion to draw from just looking at people. But looks can be deceiving.

How do we know a refugee when we see one? If these guys aren’t real refugees, then who is?

What does a refugee look like?

A refugee is a specific legal category, defined by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention as someone who:

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Type ‘refugee’ into Google images and you won’t be too surprised by what comes up. The people in the pictures are mostly women and children, shabbily dressed, and often quite dusty. These are the kinds of images we are used to seeing when we hear about refugees.

Refugees leaving Kosovo

Refugees from Kosovo.

This is why it is, to be fair, quite confusing when we see pictures like the well-built well-dressed young men taking a selfie with an iPad. They don’t seem too badly off…

However, young men are in very specific kinds of danger in a war zone. Military service of up to three years is mandatory for Syrians men aged 18.

Whether those who receive the draft do not support the regime or fear what will happen to them if captured by rebels, many have chosen to flee rather than stay and kill or be killed.

Four years into the civil war, these defections have left the Assad regime facing a manpower shortage, which only leads to further mandatory conscription, where the newly drafted can expect to be shipped to the front lines with little training.

Sanjayan Srikanthan, director of humanitarian policy at the International Rescue Committee told Buzzfeed : “There’s a common fear of being conscripted into fighting, regardless of which side that’s driving people to flee.”

Of course it’s not just about conscription. This all comes on top of the barrel-bombing and airstrikes which Syrian civilians, men and women, rich and poor, young and old, have found themselves in the middle of, and which have left many Syrian towns and cities completely destroyed.

Strapping young lads, or fighting-age men as they are sometimes referred to, might not look like stereotypical helpless refugees. But it is precisely because they are young, fit and male that they face conscription. This, on top of barrel-bombing or fear of the police, is why they choose to leave.

We cannot know who is a real refugee and who isn’t just by looking at them. You do not have to look helpless in order to be in need of help.

But should we be focusing so hard on who is and isn’t a refugee in the first place?

High profile players like Al Jazeera and UNHCR have led the way in insisting that the thousands of people arriving in Europe are refugees and not migrants.

UNHCR poster "Refugee or Migrant (C) Andrew McConnell

The UNHCR was among the leading organisations against using the word migrant

The argument behind this was that the word migrant had become a dehumanising label that allowed governments to keep people out rather than let them in.

The groundswell that followed of European citizens insisting their leaders take their fair share of refugees was proof of how powerful a difference the word refugee made.

However, insisting that we call them refugees did not solve the primary problem of migrants being dehumanised.

On the contrary, it has given politicians and the media a licence to distinguish between crowds of people to pinpoint who was worthy of Europe’s help (the refugees) and who was not (tough young male migrants who were supposedly only posing as refugees).

Is this what happens when we start talking about two different kinds of people? In practice, the difference between a migrant and a refugee is often barely recognisable: Both are leaving intolerable situations.

What does a refugee look like? Explained: Anyone can find themselves in a situation where they have to seek asylum from war or persecution. We are used to picturing refugees as poor and desperate women and children, but war puts young able-bodied men in specific kinds of danger, like being drafted into the army of a regime they no longer support. However – this exercise of sorting between who is and isn’t a refugee can be dangerous. This is because it suggests that refugees’ lives are worth more than those of migrants.  

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