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It's a big day in British politics. Voting is underway in local elections. Now, many of those races will be seen as a kind of referendum on the performance of the troubled government of Prime Minister David Cameron. Many of the races will. But the race for mayor of London is a story all its own, a contest to lead one of the world's great cities, where the frontrunners are two of the most compelling figures on the political landscape. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hundreds are gathered in a hall in London, a stone's throw from Big Ben. On the platform sits a line of candidates competing to be mayor. London's a world leader in finance and culture and will soon host the Olympics. This gathering, though, is about a local issue. The candidates are debating the dangers of cycling. The current mayor, Boris Johnson, stands out because of his haystack of bright blonde hair and an accent from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse.
BORIS JOHNSON: I may not conform to your - to the idea of a stereotypical cyclist...
REEVES: Johnson loves cycling. He also loves an argument and tries to pick one.
JOHNSON: I do not have whippet, whippet-thin brown legs or dreadlocks or - I do not charge around in Lycra. I do not jump lights. I am frozen like a pillar - I am frozen like a pillar at lights.
REEVES: Most politicians would be in big trouble for remarks like that. But Johnson isn't the same as most politicians. Johnson is a Conservative. Conservatives run Britain's coalition government. The country's in recession. They're down in the polls. But national trends may not matter much to Johnson. He's a law unto himself, who tends to defy the usual rules of politics, says Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics.
TONY TRAVERS: I think he has the advantage of sounding and looking slightly different to other politicians in a way that has convinced voters that his mistakes are somehow evidence of authenticity, which is very lucky for any politician.
MATTHEW PARRIS: He pretends to be disheveled, his hair always all over the place, his suits crumpled.
REEVES: Writer and broadcaster Matthew Parris is a former Conservative politician.
PARRIS: He's constantly stammering and pretending that he doesn't know whether he is coming or going and can't get the words out. But beneath that - and everybody, every Londoner can see - beneath that is an extremely sharp intelligence and a very high ambition too.
REEVES: A lot of Londoners seem amused by Johnson. The other day he appeared before the cameras to launch the latest stage of a major new rail link. His job as mayor was to press the start button on two giant boring machines now tunneling under his city.
JOHNSON: We're about to unleash these chronic deities, titanic worms, voracious predators of the Pleistocene clay of London, these vast nibbling Nibelung, who will add so hugely to the wealth of our city.
REEVES: To keep his job, Johnson must beat this man.
KEN LIVINGSTON: We've all seen party political broadcasts before, but this one's a bit different.
REEVES: Ken Livingston became London's first mayor when the post was created 12 years ago. His political career stretches way back. He was a fierce opponent of Margaret Thatcher. For a while he led the Greater London Council, the legislature that administered the city until the mid-1980s. Back then, everyone called him Red Ken, because of his leftist views.
TRAVERS: Ken Livingstone is one of the most durable people in British politics.
REEVES: Tony Travers, again.
TRAVERS: He's on the left of the Labour Party, so a sort of old fashioned left-winger by European standards, but has adapted to politics as it's gone along and isn't perhaps as ideological as he once was, for example, about business and banking. He's actually quite pro-business and even banking.
REEVES: Like Johnson, Livingstone is his own man with some unusual traits, including a passion for keeping newts. A while back, Livingstone was expelled from his own Labour Party. Matthew Parris says when he first ran, the party didn't want him to be mayor.
PARRIS: And they tried to stop him being their candidate and quickly discovered that they were getting nowhere with anybody else and had to swallow their pride and have him back into the fold.
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REEVES: The battle between Boris and Ken has been lively. The outcome is hard to call. You see, the voters of London are also a law unto themselves. Parris, again...
PARRIS: Londoners will make up their own minds on the issues and on the individuals. They won't just vote the party machine.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.