The pandemic that has filled our hospitals and knocked the capital’s economy for six has already had two significant consequences for the next mayoral election: the date has been postponed by a year until May 2021 and a prominent candidate, the Independent Rory Stewart, has dropped out of the race.
Both developments should in principle help the Conservative candidate, Shaun Bailey. He now has an extra year in which to establish himself in the minds of voters. He also gets the chance to scoop up from Stewart some Tory voters disaffected by Boris Johnson’s Brexit policies. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Siobhan Benita, could also get a boost from Stewart’s withdrawal, although she, like Siân Berry, the Green Party hopeful, suffers from the fact that her party has never made any real impact in London’s mayoral races.
But it may turn out that the change in timing has a more significant effect on Sadiq Khan’s chances of holding City Hall for Labour. Mayors often make grand announcements in advance of elections with implementation planned to follow the vote. The hope is that supporters will rally to the announcement, while those who may not realise they will be adversely affected don’t discover the fact until too late. In that spirit, Khan announced some time ago that the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the whole of London within the North and South Circular Roads would start in October 2021 – plaudits now, hard graft to follow only when well into his second term.
Under the expanded ULEZ, petrol-powered cars, vans and minibuses made before 2005 and diesel-powered vehicles made before 2015 will need to pay £12.50 a day to be driven in the zone – and this will apply to people who live and work there, not just to those driving in. The current charge operates 24 hours a day, every day of the week. Understandably, perhaps, Transport for London has not yet carried out a great publicity campaign urging owners of moderately old diesel cars in this huge swathe of London to change their vehicles – there was time enough for that, it seemed, between May this year and October 2021.
That timetable no longer works and the Mayor has to decide how vigorously to spread this message in what will now be the run-up to the new election date. Whatever he does, even if he finds an excuse to postpone implementation, it is hard to see how this will not be an election issue in May 2021. The anti-Khan pitch, of course, will not just be to those directly affected, but to the Outer London boroughs as well, worried that the Labour Mayor will be coming for them next.
We may get a small taster of the effect when ULEZ standards are introduced across the whole of London for lorries and coaches from October this year, though fleet operators are normally properly prepared for such changes. Nonetheless, it is a risk, however small, that Khan had imagined would follow, not precede, his re-election campaign.
The delay to the election also means that Khan’s response to the pandemic will be under scrutiny in the run-up to the poll. It will be a real test of the credibility of his leadership qualities and, being the third London Mayor, he is likely to be subject to comparisons with both of his predecessors, perhaps more tellingly with Ken Livingstone than with Boris Johnson. Given the restricted nature of his powers, a Mayor has a choice: take responsibility for what is happening in the capital or constantly remind the voters how much power is retained by the government. Livingstone went for the former course. Khan has devoted four years to the latter and continued to during the pandemic.
He was criticised for slamming the brakes on the Tube as the lockdown came into effect on the grounds that it led to unnecessary and dangerous crowding. Now he risks being criticised for being unprepared to re-open the Tube quickly enough as the lockdown is lifted. He is unapologetic about the fact that up to a third of TfL’s operational staff were off sick because of the virus at the start of the lockdown (the figure for the Metropolitan Police, even more public-facing, is currently about 10 per cent) and his repeated insistence that public transport would re-open with no more than 15 per cent of pre-virus capacity comes with a sort of relish that seems out of place in a man responsible both for London’s transport and, to a degree, for its economic well-being. His main concern seems to be to ensure that car use doesn’t rise in the wake of the pandemic.
Hence this normally most cautious of politicians has come up with an audacious and politically risky plan. Everyone accepts that it will take time for the Tube and buses to get back to normal and most will accept, grudgingly or with enthusiasm, that in the interim new temporary extra provision might sensibly be made for cycling and walking. But Khan is going much further than that, briefing the press that his interim re-allocation of road-space, marketed under the banner “London Streetspace”, could well be made permanent. He is holding out the prospect of a huge long-term enforced modal shift from Tube and bus to walking and cycling, with the road space taken from vehicles never to be returned.
Of course he has cover from government for this. Will Norman’s predecessor as mayoral cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, is now the Prime Minister’s special adviser on transport and, despite party difference, one can imagine the spiritual bonds between them – even that they may have each other’s numbers on speed-dial. But it will be Khan’s choice to make the new measures the basis of a permanent shift, and he is up for re-election long before the government is. Will he be allowed by his opponents to avoid stating his intentions before the vote?
Khan of course was saying as recently as early March that travel by Tube was safe. And there is still no explanation as to why has failed until mid-May to provide face-masks to his bus drivers, even though in April he had pivoted to a campaign for the government to make face masks compulsory for all – and at a time when deaths among bus-drivers were becoming very apparent. His eventual decision to adopt middle-door boarding on buses seemed slow – and forced by the unions. These are the sort of things that may become the subject of scrutiny in the New Year as the danger of the virus, we all hope, recedes and inquiries into its handling begin.
On the plus side for Khan, the pandemic has taken pressure off what was undoubtedly his greatest weakness until a few weeks ago: the levels of violent crime, particularly knife crime, in the capital. The lockdown has both helped to reduce that and distracted the public mind from the topic. Furthermore, the polling and the established political composition of the capital, as well as the London Labour Party’s formidable organisational skills, mean that Bailey still has a mountain to climb if he is to dislodge the incumbent.
He has not so far succeeded in establishing in Londoners’ minds either his personality, or a vision for the capital or a compelling critique of his opponent. And the lockdown appears to have condemned him to invisibility. He has a lot of work to do, in a contest that requires imaginative campaigning, if he is to have a better chance in May 2021 than he would have had a few weeks ago. So, despite the very different circumstances in which Khan will meet the voters, this remains very much his election to lose.
Daniel Moylan was an adviser to Boris Johnson when he was London Mayor, in particular on transport issues. Follow Daniel on Twitter.
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