Last night’s ITV London debate will be the first time many Londoners have seen the mayoral candidates of the four principal parties in the same place at the same time and made acquaintance with what they are offering. Chaired with admirable agility by Charlene White, who must have been exhausted by the end, the programme covered as much ground as it could in the short space of 27 minutes. In-depth policy examination is not possible in such a format. That task falls to fringe fanatics.
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The candidate quartet are now honed and near-robotic message machines, having lived and breathed their respective policies for months and made their arguments so often to so many that deploying them is close to automatic. The attractions and susceptibilities of their manifesto offers have come into focus, as have their strategies for maximising voter support in the last dozen days of seeking it.
All of that was on show last night. Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan, a shrewd and confident campaigner, highlighted the parts of his record he’s most proud of, notably helping to fund homes for social rent (or thereabouts), bringing about major improvements to air quality and – to borrow his slogan – “standing up for London” against a Conservative government that has spent more than a year annexing City Hall’s autonomy and powers.
He’s not so keen to talk about the Silvertown road tunnel project, a long-gestating new Thames crossing east of Tower Bridge, but two of his opponents, the Green Party’s Sian Berry and Liberal Democrat Luisa Porritt, want to talk about it very much – about stopping it from happening on air quality grounds.
Berry, making her third run for Mayor, is her party’s biggest star, its national co-leader and a formidable member of the London Assembly. She formally launched her campaign promising to battle hard – harder than Khan has done – to get the government to give City Hall powers to regulate private sector rents.
No Tory government is likely to oblige, and many housing economists believe rent controls only ever do more harm than good. Berry’s proposal is, nonetheless, driven by genuine concerns about housing costs and is part of a wider suite of housing ideas that exemplify the Green principle of bottom-up community action. She is an eloquent advocate for her party’s cause and her campaign is her latest good contribution to the wider debate about the capital and its social character.
Porritt, like Berry a Camden councillor, is far less experienced, having only joined her party five years ago. But she has risen well to the challenge of fighting a mayoral campaign she too has little chance of winning, while hoping to boost her party’s Assembly representation. On air quality and greener transport, she and Berry share substantial common ground, notably on introducing smart road-pricing to succeed the current collection of flat rate schemes. Khan has ruled that out.
A core conviction of Porritt’s bid for votes, articulated last night, is that trends accelerated by the pandemic, in particular more home-working, will not swing into reverse once Covid has gone, meaning that vacant office can be converted into housing and local high streets will be in need of radical reinvention as changed employment habits create new local demands and alter the work culture of London’s economy. This diagnosis, which builds on long-standing tenets of Lib Dem localism, might or might not turn out to be overstated. Time will tell. In the meantime, it brings a valuable focus on a major post-Covid theme.
Which brings us the Conservative Shaun Bailey. As in his recent BBC London News one-to-one with Khan, he was fluent and well-drilled during the ITV London debate, neatly getting his favourite attack lines in. That didn’t make his pledges any more plausible.
In the morning, he’d unveiled a campaign poster alleging a re-elected Khan would make a £4.68 billion “tax grab” that would “cost every London household £1,339”. A hand-fed Daily Mail reported that the figure “is mainly made up of plans to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone to the North and South Circular roads with motorists charged £12.50 to enter it, plans to charge motorists £5.50 for going into Greater London and a proposed Council Tax hike”.
This is rank dishonesty. The expanded ULEZ will – guess what? – only apply to vehicles that don’t meet the required low emission standard. Clue in title. The “plans to charge motorists £5.50” are an outright misrepresentation of one suggestion made to the government by Transport for London for raising funds in the future. If ever introduced in the form actually proposed, the charge would be £3.50 for all but the most polluting vehicles and not be paid by Londoners. If the idea got the go-ahead it would not be introduced for at least two years and the Conservative transport secretary Grant Shapps has already rubbished it in public.
It is extraordinary that Bailey, who reckons he can drive down crime, peddles fraudulent claims so freely. Challenged by White over the impression he has given that he could get shot of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods when, in fact, the power to do lies not with the Mayor but with boroughs, he blustered. His contentions about policing are equally trumped-up, a mix of populist ploys and scare-mongering.
On housing, his promise of “100,000 homes for £100,000” is a soundbite figure for an imagined mayoral distribution of funds from national government into shared ownership properties at the expense of homes for social rent. For this policy to even begin to be feasible, a Mayor Bailey elected on 6 May would have to completely re-start the allocation process for the most recent affordable homes grant – £4 billion for a five-year programme to 2026, announced last November. The deadline for bids passed on 9 April and decisions are due in June.
Bailey alleged that Khan “promised 80,000 homes per year”. This recurring red herring owes its birth to a figure that appeared for a period on Khan’s campaign website during the 2016 campaign. Judging by inquiries made at the time, it seems to have been put there by mistake and was removed after a few eyebrows were raised. It was not in Khan’s 2016 manifesto and neither was any other overall housing delivery target.
There is a responsible case to be made for giving shared ownership more priority. There is a legitimate debate to be had about Khan’s housing policies as a whole, the effects of which are tricky to define. Khan could be fairly challenged over his police and crime priorities and whether he has led from the front enough on violent offending. On transport, it would be credible to ask if Khan’s fares freeze did more harm than good. But pretending – as Boris Johnson also has – that Khan “bankrupted” TfL before Covid even arrived is drivel, as Bailey surely knows perfectly well.
No one seeking public office wants to make things easy for their opponents. Plenty of candidates proffer over-hopeful ideas and all want the public eye to rest on their best side. But Bailey’s campaign has travelled far beyond the boundaries of spin and exaggeration into the realm of what is politely called “post-truth”. He is serially implausible. The polls suggest he’s heading for a heavy defeat. If that happens, it will be hard to sympathise.
Watch the ITV London News debate in full here.
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