Although it faded from the headlines fairly quickly, Sadiq Khan’s tour of the north of England after the “Super Thursday” elections is an important sign of the position of London in the current national political obsession with “levelling up”. It is also a sign of the growing political importance and profile of both the role of London Mayor and of its current occupant.
Khan is clearly keen to ensure that “levelling up” takes into account the role that London plays in generating jobs in other parts of the country. This is understandable, considering signs that the Conservative government’s main focus is on areas that benefit them politically. It has been accused of focussing funds on areas that have recently gone Conservative – in other words, of designing “levelling up” to cement gains in former Labour red wall seats to the detriment of more Labour-leaning places like London. Something similar can be seen in the proposal to cut funding for teaching at London universities.
Khan’s trip to the north of England, and his trumpeting the connection between spending on, for example, London’s infrastructure actually ending up benefitting other parts of the country, is clearly an attempt to challenge that trend. Levelling up is an attractive idea, but there is a political debate taking place about what it actually means. Khan’s tour was a contribution to that debate.
Whether he will be successful in ensuring that “levelling up” is a genuinely national project rather than political pork barrelling very much remains to be seen. The decidedly mixed outcome of his negotiations with central government over Transport for London funding does not bode well for other parts of London’s overall ecosystem. Clearly, Khan wants to build alliances with other Mayors and political players, most obviously illustrated by his column in The Yorkshire Post pledging London as an ally in levelling up. It was reciprocated the very next day by an Evening Standard piece by his Manchester counterpart Andy Burnham, professing his love of London.
If Khan can build alliances with other leading politicians in devolved positions of power, he is more likely to be successful in widening the definition of levelling up, than if fighting alone. There is an open question as to how genuine any mutual city and regional love might be when it comes down to hard political and financial calculations. Nevertheless, Khan’s approach of reaching out to other parts of the country and highlighting the role of London in wider prosperity makes a lot of sense.
Khan’s northern tour also makes personal political sense. Whenever the Labour Party will run another leadership selection process – and polling would suggest it will not be more than one election away – Khan is clearly one of the front runners (pending a return to the House of Commons). However, replacing one southern England politician with another may not be seen as very wise by the wider party, especially in the light of Labour’s northern problems.
Hence, Khan needs to build a support base outside the capital. Declaring himself an ally of the north is clearly a good way of doing that. Timings could be a little awkward for him, as he would need to be available for the leadership, which would mean being back in the House of Commons. His current term comes to an end in 2024, which is also the date of the next general election. But provided the current parliamentary term runs its full course and a seat becomes available, Khan could be an MP if and when Starmer steps down after failing to win the keys to Number 10.
Finally, Khan’s trip to the north illustrates a change in the UK’s political landscape. Usually, “tours” are undertaken by party leaders, often after an election defeat to reconnect with lost voters. Such an excursion by any politician from outside the top parliamentary leadership would be normally be much less likely to be noticed. However, the rise of directly elected mayors with significant executive powers has changed the meaning of leadership in UK political parties.
Khan is currently Labour’s fifth most well known politician, marginally ahead of Starmer in sixth place. Leadership is no longer something restricted to the leading politicians in the House of Commons. In London, Manchester, Liverpool and other areas with directly-elected Mayors, political leadership is increasingly provided locally, rather than nationally. In addition, as was illustrated by Boris Johnson’s trajectory, mayoral office can be a springboard to high national political office.
This is arguably a mixed blessing for London and other areas. in means the office can attract politicians with noticeable national profiles, who can bring attention to the problems and offerings of their area. However, if major local political positions are increasingly seen as a pathway to national political office, it may also lead to these politicians becoming increasingly distracted as their local term comes to and end and they eye up “bigger” roles. Johnson himself was an example of this, combining as he did the role of Mayor with that of MP at the end of his term.
Regardless of whether Khan’s northern tour brings political benefits to London and to himself, it is clear that the position of London Mayor, and mayoral positions elsewhere, will only continue to move to the centre stage of UK politics. It is highly unlikely their powers will be reduced, and indeed are only likely to increase, with a consequent rise in the importance and profile of the role. Khan has clearly made a statement related to national politics with his tour, and he and his position are likely to continue to increase in national importance.
Robin Pettitt is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Kingston University.
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