London Mayor 2024: The case for Sadiq Khan

London Mayor 2024: The case for Sadiq Khan

It really is no contest. On Thursday, Londoners should give Sadiq Khan another term as Mayor of London without hesitation or doubt. There are several reasons why, but three in particular stand out.

  • One is that he has done a decent job since 2016 in often highly adverse circumstances.
  • Another is that a Labour Mayor and a Labour national government in power at the same time, which might be a reality soon, could only be an improvement on the years of damaging antagonism between City Hall and Conservative ministers.
  • The third is that the Tories don’t deserve victory in the capital: their attitude to London has been hostile, their ideas for improving it are poor and their mayoral candidate, Susan Hall, is unacceptable.

Admirers of Liberal Democrat hopeful Rob Blackie and the Greens’ Zoë Garbett should do as a Khan suggests and “lend” him their votes to help ensure that Hall is vanquished. Both are also running for the London Assembly, which they would grace, but a vote for either in the mayoral ballot on 2 May would help the Tory. Just say no.

Let’s look squarely at the Khan balance sheet after eight years. Let’s say, for the sake of debate, that his transport policies have been of uneven worth, that his latest Ultra-Low Emission Zone expansion has been too hurried, that his planning framework is too rigid, holding back housing development, and that he hasn’t made reducing crime enough of a hands-on priority. Such criticisms can be found in Labour circles as well as among opposition parties and sensible people in other fields.

Let us conjecture that he could have been less spiky and tribal in his dealings with, in particular, Boris Johnson’s government, perhaps sparing London some of the posturing, time-wasting, top-down interference in the London Plan and, most egregiously, the finances of Transport for London during the pandemic.

Let’s weigh in the balance complaints that he hasn’t been collegiate enough in his dealings with London’s boroughs, not interested enough in the development sector and too ready to blame the government for his problems. Let’s take note of the view that his administrations have been too algorithmic and his City Hall organisational structures too defensively concerned with repelling political attacks and not enough with driving delivery. Let’s regret that he hasn’t been more radical – or radical at all – about hot potato issues such as road user charging, drug laws and Green Belt reform.

Let’s pile all that on the possible debit side and measure it against the credits. Khan has been right to berate the Tory government, which has made slighting and excluding London and Londoners a bedrock of its political and policy approaches. Even if Khan really has made life more difficult for himself than it need have been, there has been no excuse for the greater power upstream in Westminster discriminating against the city whose economy and people prop up the rest of the country, interfering, undermining and making a mockery of its 2019 manifesto commitment to end the days of “Whitehall knows best”.

In policy areas where London’s Mayors have their greatest power and influence, Khan’s record is either good or perfectly defensible. On affordable housing, his job has been to get as much money as he can out of the government on the best possible terms, distribute it among housing providers and ensure that building work begins. Tory jibes that “you can’t live in a start” may be literally true, but ignore the fact that their own government sets the “starts” condition. Anyone pretending that the delivery of housing of any kind in London hasn’t been made harder by everything from new safety standards to labour shortages does not deserve to be taken seriously. It can be argued that the affordable housing “threshold” Khan imposes on planning schemes is too stringent, but it has done much of what it set out to achieve.

For all the great harm done it to by the pandemic, Transport for London continues to be a world-leading transport body, its services putting those of private rail companies in the shade. Polling for On London found that most Londoners consider public transport in the capital to have improved across the board since 2016, when Khan was first elected. Road traffic congestion continues to be a major problem that probably only pay-per-mile can solve – and Khan has pledged that he won’t introduce it. But at least the ULEZ has accelerated the cleaning up of London’s air.

There is no area of mayoral responsibility less well understood by voters than policing and crime. Mayors are expected to accept blame out of all proportion to the powers they possess. They do not run the Met – the Met does that – and they do not sit in City Hall, like Churchill in his war room, ordering battalions of bobbies around London’s streets. They set budgets and priorities and, as Khan did with Dame Cressida Dick – and as did Boris Johnson with Sir Ian Blair – they can force a Commissioner out. They cannot fully make up for cuts in government funding, prevent changes in viciously-contested local drug markets or swoop like Spiderman to collar crooks. Sir Mark Rowley was Khan’s pick as Britain’s and London’s new “top cop” and tasked with cleaning up the Met after numerous, sometimes sickening, professional failings in the ranks were exposed. He’s been a good appointment and he’s doing a good job.

Some of Khan’s most high-profile efforts have been with issues close to his heart, such as funding council housing and universal free meals in primary schools, and with bpublic health in the form of air quality improvement. You might argue with the emphasis he’s given them or even the basis for them, but they are, nonetheless, good priorities that seek to address some of most pressing economic and social issues of our time.

Would Susan Hall’s priorities be preferable? One answer to that question is that it’s been quite hard to judge from her relentlessly narrow, negative, dishonest, scaremongering campaign.

For all her disadvantages, she could have been a more impressive and appealing candidate. Only one of London’s previous Mayors – Ken Livingstone – had experience of exercising power in London government before becoming Mayor. Hall’s pedigree is more modest, but her leadership of Harrow Council and role in another Harrow administration count. Political opponents on the London Assembly testify that she is a hard worker and very committed to her job. She has, of course, brought such accusations on herself, but it is wrong to describe her as “a racist” despite her idiotic, irresponsible social media history of egging racists on.

For some, such an assessment will be too generous. But maybe it should be more so. On the few occasions she has appeared in the same space as the three other top candidates, Hall has shown herself to be quite able to advance perfectly reasonable, orthodox Conservative arguments about planning, housing provision and community safety. The little that’s been revealed of her personal history suggests she may be a more sympathetic and admirable person than she appears from her rather hidebound, disapproving public persona.

And in the end we must come down to policies. As Mayor, Hall would be more concerned with the liberties of private motorists than with improving public transport. She would place undue – indeed unshakeable – faith in market forces to solve housing supply and affordability problems. It appears she would present a threat to Rowley remaining Met Commissioner. All these things would be bad.

Adding to the case against her is the very fact of her being the Tory candidate. Did her party chiefs fail to spot her vast and very public back catalogue of dubious enthusiasms, so casually expressed through social media, or did they simply not care about them? With baggage like that Hall shouldn’t even have been on the Tory long list, let alone been allowed to emerge and remain as the candidate at the end of a shambolic selection process. She has turned a blind eye to vandals and extremists damaging ULEZ cameras and to Lee Anderson’s disgusting “Islamist” smear against Khan. Her claim that Khan hates women is rubbish.

Rather than offering Londoners an alternative and possible antidote to national Conservatism that London – and London democracy – so badly needs, the Tories have presented the city with someone who personifies her party’s most destructive and worrying tendencies. The Conservatives don’t deserve to win London. Far from it. Not content with bad-mouthing and impeding the UK capital for five years, they have fixed its electoral system in their favour by imposing First Past The Past and disrespected its devolution settlement at every turn. Londoners should give Sadiq Khan his third term and with it have hope for more and better good things to come.

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