It now seems to be confirmed that Sadiq Khan, a popular Labour Mayor of London, has not been asked to address his party’s conference this year, at least from its main stage. Neither, it appears, have Labour’s newly-elected mayors from other big British city areas, Andy Burnham of Greater Manchester and Steve Rotheram of the Liverpool City Region.
The reason given for this is that Jeremy Corbyn wants more platform time allotted to grassroots party members. Cynics say that’s just a ploy to stifle dissent and any awkward reminders that those three Labour politicians won their recent big elections while the MP for Islington North lost his against the worst Conservative campaign ever. Maybe they are right, though Corbyn is as entitled as any previous Labour leader to configure conference in ways that work to his advantage: Tony Blair did it, why should his latest successor be any different?
More worrying than the kremlinology of conference speaking schedules is what the sidelining of the Labour mayors might say about their party leader’s attitude to London and the future of the UK’s major cities generally.
Labour’s general election manifesto was far more promising to Londoners than that of the Tories, who tried to feed off the anti-London feeling that helped fuel the Leave vote in the EU referendum. Labour’s performance in the capital speaks for itself, with a whole bunch of MPs who’d feared for their seats ending up with handsome majorities. Yet Corbyn’s old time religion is not a credo to inspire much faith in his vision for London and its place in a fast changing UK and wider world.
Like it or not, the capital is an engine of capitalist productivity that cranks out nearly one quarter of the nation’s wealth and close to one third of its taxes. At the same time, London has the worst child poverty rate in the country, some of its worst youth unemployment, a cost of living that puts a heavy strain on low and middle income households crucial its social and economic chemistry, and far too few powers at either City Hall or Town Hall levels to tackle those failings to best effect.
The Labour manifesto did its share of trading on resentment of public investment in London, while offering too little of real substance to help other UK cities to better help themselves. Corbyn’s Labour defined itself in general as “the party of devolution” and of “handing back power to communities” from an over-centralised Whitehall, but failed to develop this outline into a full and inspiring picture of how London and its fellow city regions could become more prosperous, more innovative, more attractive and more equitable places for the benefit of the whole country.
Is much thought going into these issues at Labour HQ? While Khan’s mayoralty is adopting a measured, pragmatic approach to housing, transport and other areas where it has significant powers and while across the capital different Labour-run boroughs are wrestling in different ways with an array of pressures brought about by population growth, slashed budgets and the dilemmas that come with fostering the types of economic development Londoners’ need, the party’s national leadership offers little to excite.
There’s a legitimate debate to be had about how some Labour boroughs have been going about their work, but Corbynites on the ground appear far more interested in the easy satisfactions of ideological opposition than coming up with workable alternatives. Should they ever take control of seats of London government they’ll have to do better than that, just as their leader on the Commons opposition benches will need to come up with a better programme for London and other UK cities if he’s to stand a chance of leading the country too.