Sadiq Khan is noted for his steely communications style, which exasperates opponents and provides audiences with messages he wants them to hear. His contributions to Labour’s conference week so far suggest that life in City Hall has robbed the Mayor of none of the hardened guile he demonstrated in winning last year’s election campaign.
A reminder of the backdrop. At last year’s conference, the then newly-elected Khan made a speech which heavily stressed the need for Labour politicians to win power. It was widely taken as a dig at Jeremy Corbyn. Then came Corbyn’s general election defeat in June which, though it left Labour further behind the Tories than when beaten under Gordon Brown way back in 2010, wasn’t as bad as most predicted and has been hailed by many of Labour’s newer members as “a victory for hope”.
Khan’s discordant contribution was interpreted by some as explaining why it looked as if he wouldn’t be given a speaking slot this time around. However, for whatever reason, that changed at the eleventh hour and a cosy photo op with Corbyn ensued. The message it sent to me is that Khan knows what side his Brighton bread is buttered and that neither he nor his leader have an interest in it falling from his plate and landing the wrong way up.
No surprise, then, that the London Mayor has been impeccably on-message during his trip to the south coast, in striking contrast to last year. His speech today majored on praise for the response of London’s emergency services to recent terror attacks. No danger of being booed by the Momentum chorus for that. Indeed, he got a standing ovation.
This followed his appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme (one hour, 10 minutes in), during which he kept his cloth ears firmly fixed in place when pressed about his attitude to Brexit. He repeated his long-held view that it would be best if the UK stayed in the single market and that the next best would be the widest possible access to it. Some think differently, but to me that doesn’t seem much out of line with the Labour policy formulation of Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras and shadow Brexit minister.
However, Khan repeatedly ducked questions about whether he wants free movement of EU labour to continue, offering instead a parry in the form of urging the government to “make sure there is a flexible policy” when it comes to inward migration, and that “the lion’s share” of any absolute number of workers allowed in to the country comes to the capital. He didn’t take the opportunity to talk specifically about a special London working visa – something he’s done in the past – and declined to express dismay that the conference Brexit debate was not to go to a vote – a situation observers regard as a fudge to spare Corbyn embarrassment.
And Khan has been making crowd-pleasing noises elsewhere too. Yesterday, he answered questions from the Guardian in the person of its new-ish editor, Katharine Viner. She asked him about the emotive matter of “empty luxury housing in London” and what could be done about it. His reply, as the Guardian paraphrased it, included the assertion that “properties are bought as investments”, as “gold bricks” and are “being sold to foreigners and left empty”.
The exchange rewards dissection. Firstly, empty homes are a vexing but marginal London housing issue. The number in the capital fitting the official definition – unoccupied for more than six months in a row – is small and has been getting smaller. Even in Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), which is the borough with the highest number of empty homes, they comprise a percentage of the total housing stock pretty adjacent to the national average. Empty homes are “a story” for left wing journalists, post-Grenfell, especially if located in RBKC, but pretty much beside the point. The reality, almost totally ignored by the Guardian for years, is that overseas investors (who aren’t all foreigners, by the way) have effectively paid for much of the new, sub-market housing that has been built in Central London since the financial crash 10 years ago.
Secondly, Sadiq Khan knows all this, or should do. The research he commissioned from the London School of Economics into the effects of overseas investors found that the vast majority of flats they pay for in London are very fully occupied and that there is “almost no evidence” of such properties being left entirely empty. This burst a pervasive (and arguably xenophobic) populist bubble. At least, it might have had the Guardian chosen to do more than barely mention it in its rather selective coverage of the LSE team’s work. Perhaps that explains why Viner wasn’t better researched. As for the Mayor, let’s just say he’s a pro.