Election Comment: The Tory campaign for Mayor has shown contempt for Londoners. Give Sadiq Khan a second term

Election Comment: The Tory campaign for Mayor has shown contempt for Londoners. Give Sadiq Khan a second term

Londoners get two votes for London Mayor – a first preference and a second. This means they can vote with their hearts (for the candidate they like best) and with their heads (for the candidate with a chance of winning that they like best or dislike least). The big polling booth advice for Londoners on Thursday is as simple as it is urgent: they should cast one of their two votes for Labour’s Sadiq Khan and neither of them for the Conservative Shaun Bailey.

It is hard to regard Bailey’s attempts to become Mayor of our extraordinary city with anything other than contempt. He was selected as his party’s candidate in September 2018, giving him ample time, even before the election was postponed from its original date last May, to come up with a serious, imaginative and comprehensive Conservative alternative to the transport, housing, planning and policing policies Khan has pursued since becoming Mayor in 2016. An atypical Tory, even for London, Bailey had the chance to start rebuilding his party’s reputation and popularity after the divisive scare-mongering and dismal failures of Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral bid.

Instead, he has spent two-and-a-half-years peddling pathetic falsehoods and trying to stir up what is left of a Tory core vote in the capital. Campaign material has included leaflets and websites containing made-up “facts” about Council Tax and Transport for London’s finances that pretended not to be from his party. As Covid has devastated TfL’s finances, Bailey has repeatedly falsely claimed that TfL was “bankrupt” before the pandemic, with Khan to blame.

The list goes on: Bailey continues to state that new Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have been forced on Londoners by Khan when the truth is that their rapid implementation was a requirement of Conservative national government; he keeps bragging that he would “scrap” unwanted LTNs when in reality he would have no power to do so; he has lied that “anyone driving into Greater London would have to pay £5.50” under a purely theoretical road-pricing scheme TfL has suggested to the government, which transport secretary Grant Shapps has already rubbished, and which Londoners would not have to pay. His promises to cut crime are worthless.

Some feel sorry for Bailey, suggesting he has been misused as a nice-but-dim novelty act in a desperate Tory attempt to make some sort of dent in Labour’s growing dominance of the capital – a “one-party city,” as John Curtice recently described it. But while taking on Khan would have been hard for even a capable Tory challenger, Bailey has long since lost any right to sympathy by participating with no apparent qualms in the wretched fibathon that has passed for his campaign.

There are perfectly legitimate issues that can be raised about Khan and his record in office. Has he been too Labour-tribal and antagonistic towards the national government? Has he over-regulated the planning system, resulting in fewer affordable homes rather than more? Have his “healthy streets” policies produced the hoped-for results? Has he set the right priorities for the Metropolitan Police and stuck to them? A man who likes winning elections – though no bad thing in a Labour politician these days – has he, as a result, been far too cautious, playing percentages rather than aiming high? Why not prepare the ground for a radical new road-pricing system? Why the rigid refusal to countenance Green Belt reform?

Khan could answer by pointing to significant achievements. Air quality has improved greatly, there may be signs that his use of his planning powers is working as intended, he can point to good early deals (with Theresa May’s government) on affordable housing and he can contend, with justice, that he’s plugged gaps in police resourcing while getting a contribution to a “public health” approach to youth violence going. Dashed hopes of Crossrail opening and Oxford Street being part-pedestrianised by the end of 2018 can’t be blamed solely on him, if at all. He personifies London’s glorious multicultural character effortlessly.

This progress has been made as the first London Mayor so far who’s had to deal throughout his City Hall tenure with a national government of a different party. Boris Johnson’s administration has been so utterly dismissive of the 1999 devolution settlement – starting in earnest with a rude note from Robert Jenrick more than a year ago – that Khan might reasonably object that trying to work constructively with it is futile. In the early part of his term he had to deal with the EU Referendum outcome, the Tram crash and the string of terror attacks. Then came the pandemic. It hasn’t been an easy ride but he has kept on sticking up for London and done it well.

What about the many other candidates for Mayor? Most are best ignored. None are going to win. But three in particular have made contributions that deserve voters’ consideration. Liberal Democrat Luisa Porritt became her party’s hopeful at a late stage, following the withdrawal of the original candidate and a selection fiasco. Still quite new to politics, she’s held her own in debates and her headline policies on reinventing high streets and converting office space for the post-pandemic age, while only at the fringes of formal mayoral powers, have encouraged consideration of how London’s recovery might proceed. She is right to make the case for a new and much smarter road-pricing system.

That is also a policy of Sian Berry of the Greens, who is running for Mayor for the third time. You do not have to buy in to the full Green low growth vision for London to recognise the value of the honest and constructive part they play in the city’s political debate. You might doubt the viability of campaigning for government permission to introduce rent controls – something Khan also favours – or the desirability of such powers, but Berry’s ideas for small, local-level measures for making better use of land or bringing more dwellings into social use are attractive. Speaking to On London, she made a solid case for ending travel zones as part of a wider offer on transport.

Another candidate who has impressed when given the chance is Women’s Equality Party (WEP) leader Mandu Reid. In the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s murder, she spoke eloquently about the chilling daily experiences of far too many women, and has also skilfully articulated how placing women’s equality at the heart of City Hall thinking could help meet social justice and economic objectives at the same time.

Under the supplementary vote system, Londoners can safely give their first preference vote for Mayor to any of the three women above without helping Bailey as long they give their second preference vote to Khan. Berry is encouraging this. Reid, while critical of Khan, has rightly remarked that Bailey is unfit to be Mayor.

Londoners who intend to give Khan their first preference whatever – perhaps to express the strongest possible rejection of Bailey – but would like to see Green, Lib Dem or WEP representation on the London Assembly, could consider voting for those parties in the Londonwide section of the Assembly election, which uses a form of proportional representation to help small parties with significant support have a voice at City Hall.

Opinion polls have been suggesting for more than a year that Khan will win comfortably on Thursday, with Bailey in a distant second place. Unless those polls are wildly wrong, only major apathy about turning out to vote for Khan can let Bailey in. Do not let that happen!

There is another reason for helping Khan to win by a big margin. Though demographic and social trends have helped Labour in recent times, polls suggest that around a third of Londoners who wouldn’t normally vote Tory are nonetheless prepared to consider it. Maybe a second successive shaming mayoral humiliation will finally teach the Tories that they need to get their act together in the capital. The city’s political culture would be the better for it.

For now, though, Bailey’s campaign has confirmed that the Conservative Party high command regards Londoners as electorally expendable and may even see London itself as its enemy. You have two votes for Mayor. On Thursday, give neither of them to Bailey and one of them to Khan. 

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