One year ago today, I and my fellow London politics freaks were in City Hall enduring the now traditional, interminable delay before the mayoral election result was made official. The sparkle of Sadiq Khan’s moment of triumph was slightly dulled at the time by the failure to announce it until dead of night. But the contrast between the skill and the scale of his victory last May and the almost uniformly terrible results suffered by his party, Labour, in elections elsewhere in the country on Thursday now blazes more brightly than ever.
The same goes for his record in office so far. Though not without some flaws, it has in general been everything Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is not: clear-headed, capable, disciplined, pragmatic, and, of course, delivering progressive change rather than just dreaming about it.
Among the few bright spots on Labour’s gloomy local election results landscape were its decisive wins in the inaugural “metro mayor” contests in Greater Manchester and in the Liverpool City Region. Respective victors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram showed during their campaigns that they had learned from Khan. Inevitably, the Labour trio will now be in competition with each other and with the Conservative mayors elected in other areas of England for resources from central government. But they should also strive to work together too.
One reason for this is simply that the Labour Party needs to be saved. You don’t have to be a Labour supporter to take this view: apart from anything else, effective parliamentary opposition is a vital component of British democracy and any restraint on Theresa May’s Conservatives looks like being even more feeble after 8 June than it has been since 2015. But, as Jonathan Freedland points out, there are thousands of British people who want to vote Labour but cannot bring themselves to do so while Corbyn is at its helm. Khan has so far shown what Labour in power can achieve, which might help save some Labour parliamentary candidates in London from defeat next month. Burnham and Rotheram need to emulate his progress in order to help their party to survive.
There is, though, another, far more important, reason for the Labour mayors to co-operate where they can. One of the many depressing ironies of the EU referendum result is that Britain’s prosperity heavily depends on big cities where most people voted Remain and which owe their strength to being open and cosmopolitan. London is, of course, by far the biggest example of that: the capital’s dominance might be galling and unhealthy, but the facts remain that it produces nearly a quarter of the UK’s economic wealth, generates more than a quarter of its taxes and has its highest productivity rate by far.
Mayor Burnham has a point when he declares the country “too London-centric”, but his case for Greater Manchester should not be fuelled by hostility to the capital. Instead, it should echo and complement Khan’s calls for the further devolution of powers from central government, in the national interest. Mayor Rotheram, who was Corbyn’s parliamentary private secretary, has sounded very Khan-like in proclaiming himself business-friendly. He should sound Khan-like again by adding his voice to those already asking for Britain’s fledgling big city authorities to be allowed to spread their wings and, in so doing, both better reflect the regional diversity of England and give Britain as whole a better chance of prospering in the future.
The strong suspicion is that the prime minister called the general election in large part because she fears that Brexit will do great harm to Britain and needs a big majority to limit the harm that that will do to her. Khan, Burnham and Rotheram should join forces to fight for stronger city mayors, partly to help their party stay alive as a national electoral force, but also to help their cities to help their country through what could be some very hard times ahead.