Jack Brown: What can London expect from the Labour government?

Jack Brown: What can London expect from the Labour government?

The dust is settling on the general election. The Right Honourable Member for Holborn & St Pancras is now Prime Minister. What can London and Londoners expect from our new Labour government?

Manifestos can be crude tools for predicting the future. The previous government’s in 2019 ruled out tax rises and borrowing for day-to-day spending, while also making a range of substantial spending commitments, including on “Levelling Up”. Events then blew that all out of the water when Covid-19 hit in 2020. There is some reason to suspect that it would have failed to materialise regardless of the pandemic. Manifesto commitments are not always set in stone.

Still, they tell us something about what a party is hoping to do. The Conservatives’  document for 2024 discussed London repeatedly, but mainly in pledging to repeal the expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone to Outer London and to alter the London Plan to focus new housing development on inner London. It also promised an inquiry into why so many pubs and bars have shut in the capital since 2020.

All three promises involved going over Sadiq Khan’s head and rolling back his devolved powers. He was even named in the manifesto, which told us that they really didn’t like him.

But the Mayor can rest (relatively) easy following the election. He has, for the first time, a national government of his own party in power. No one is threatening to take away or override his powers, and personal relationships with central government should be much easier.

Several of Khan’s own manifesto pledges from May’s mayoral race, from putting an extra 1,300 police on the streets to ending rough sleeping in the capital by 2030, were contingent on the cooperation of a Labour government. These deals must surely have already been done and support should be forthcoming. There will surely be points of contention to come – rent controls and rail devolution come to mind – but Khan should at least now have the tools and resources he needs to deliver on his biggest promises.

Labour’s manifesto even expresses broad enthusiasm for devolution – something Keir Starmer re-stated in his first press conference as prime minister. We shall now see how strong that commitment is. The proposed Council of the Nations and Regions would bring the Mayor of London and his counterparts across the country together with the leaders of the devolved nations and the Prime Minister. It could provide a useful forum.

But Labour’s focus appears to be mainly on strengthening powers in areas such as transport for Mayors and combined authorities outside of London, rather than improving London’s deal. There is certainly no specific promise to devolve tax-raising powers or strengthen London government.

In fact, there is no mention of London in the Labour manifesto whatsoever, and no London-specific policies. Previous winning national manifestos have pledged new infrastructure projects for the capital, from Crossrail to the 2012 Olympics. There appears to be a sense – not just in the Labour Party, and not just at a national government level – that London is essentially “done”. Or, at least, that in a difficult economic climate with little public money around, priorities for national government should be elsewhere.

The real priority is getting the national economy growing again. Labour’s biggest direct investments towards this aim, from major investment in green energy and related jobs, to building new nuclear submarines, will surely be made mainly outside of the capital.

Yet there is still plenty in there for London. Pledges to set up new “Young Futures” hubs, half knife crime within a decade, and reform the planning system to develop “grey belt” land and build New Towns to ease housing pressures should all particularly appeal to Londoners.

The latter, alongside prison reform, seem likely to be early priorities for the new administration. Promises to strengthen workers’ rights will have a particular impact in a city where the gig economy and insecure work is especially prevalent. And London’s teenagers – there are more in outer London than the average for the rest of England – will surely be delighted to be getting the right to vote rather than the requirement to do National Service promised by the Conservatives.

National politics has, for some time, portrayed London as out-of-touch and over-dominant. This, plus the fact that that Labour had less potential ground to gain electorally in the capital than elsewhere, may go some way to explaining why the capital has been far from the centre of this election campaign.

But Labour has not attacked the city – far from it. And the party has also placed a great big bet on economic growth, while at the same time committing not to raise the “big three” taxes (income, National Insurance and VAT) on “working people”.

London is, unavoidably, the primary engine of the national economy. A simple dialling down of anti-London rhetoric, which early signs indicate we can expect, and a period of stable, competent government could be of great benefit to capital and country alike. And some of the policy pledges, if delivered, could even make London a better place to live along the way.

Jack Brown lectures in London Studies at King’s College and is the author of The London Problem. X/Twitter: Jack Brown and On LondonSupport OnLondon and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE.

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