A sunny St George’s Day scene in north Paddington, five minutes from the roar of the Westway and one minute from the calm of the Grand Union canal. In a nursery playground, a campaigning politician takes a tiny seat among small children. Candidate Khan mucks in as photographers cluster round. Cardboard. Paper. Glue. Banter too. The Mayor holds up a junk-modelled human likeness. “It’s Shaun Bailey!” he exclaims.
It is rare to hear the Labour incumbent mention his Conservative rival by name. Scoop! Khan joshes that he did it specially for On London, before tearing himself away from the PVA for more yet photos – photos with teachers, photos with local MP Karen Buck and with Rita Begum, Labour candidate for the West Central London Assembly seat, currently in Tory hands.
An election race which, thanks to its Covid-induced postponement, has been grinding on for more than a year is only now being brought to the London public’s attention on a concerted scale, with broadcast debates and last lap attempts to find favour with the capital’s more than five million electors by 6 May. If Khan is tired, it didn’t show. His opinion polls leads, with one relative exception, have been consistently huge. It is hard to see him losing. What could go wrong? Is low turnout a concern?
Yes, he says, it really is, “for a number of reasons, not least the pandemic. This is a turnout election. That’s why we should all ignore the polls.” A standard line, maybe, and the two most recent surveys indicate, by historical mayoral standards, high levels of commitment to voting. Yet it is easy to imagine how anxiety about visiting polling stations could combine with conventional voter apathy when one candidate seems far ahead to depress the Labour vote in particular.
There’s been a push by activists to get people signed up for postal votes, guided by the Democrats’ US Presidential election example. Khan says that has gone well, but it’s only part of the job. There is, he says “a bit of nervousness” about postal ballots being filled in and sent. There have been teams out since last week “knocking on doors to remind people”, many of whom will be casting votes by post for the first time.
The exceptionally high number of mayoral candidates this year might also create problems. Jack Brown has pointed out that nearly 50,000 mayoral ballots were rejected in 2016, mostly because people marked crosses against more than the two candidates allowed under the supplementary vote system. Could this year’s largest-ever choice of 20 compound that difficulty and, if so, could it work more to the disadvantage of one candidate than another?
Khan has been pushing every available button, insisting from the start that it’s a two-horse race between him and Bailey, and, last week, urging Green Party supporters to “lend” him their first preference votes. He doesn’t miss the chance to send that message once more: “The only way to stop there being a Tory Mayor is by voting for me.” Green candidate Sian Berry makes a logical objection to that proposition. Khan is on stronger ground when warning anti-Tory voters against complacency: “Don’t think, in particular, it’s a foregone conclusion.” He alleges that is “in the government’s interest for there to be a low turnout.”
Relations with his predecessor’s national administration have not been warm, and the last year has seen a succession of incursions onto mayoral territory, most notably in relation to the new London Plan and the finances of Transport for London. A government ostensibly committed to extending devolution in England has been doing the precise opposite in its own capital city.
That said, even some critical friends of Khan maintain that his critical public attitude to the government, while it might help him politically, has not helped London to get the help and support it still heavily depends on. If he wins on 6 May, should he take a more conciliatory approach? It’s one thing to say you will stand up to government, but at the end of the day, they are bigger and stronger than you.
“I think after the election cooler heads in central government will realise we need to work together,” Khan replies. “It’s in no one’s interest for London not to do well. We can’t have a national recovery without London. I can understand party politics, the knockabout stuff in an election. But the government’s got to realise they need London firing on all cylinders.”
He insists he’s “keen to work with the government” and offers the affordable housing grant he’s negotiated from them during his first term as evidence, along with getting adult education funding devolved. The third and most recent housing money was, however, far less than he had asked for and although his London Plan was eventually approved, it has taken a battering from Robert Jenrick and the government’s inspectors.
There is, though, one unanswerable case to be made. “What they need to realise is you don’t level up our country by making London poorer. And I think privately a lot of them get it, but they’ve been sucked into the campaign. And so, I’m hopeful that after the campaign we’ll be able to work closer together.”
How hopeful? “Some of the people around Boris Johnson at Number 10, who were around him at City Hall, I have a very good relationship with them. But they’ve explained there’s an election on. Sometimes the knockabout stuff is what they want to do. But it’s in no one’s interest to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.”
It being St George’s Day, what better final to question to ask than what makes him an Englishman? Well, there’s football of course: he expresses delight that the national team could play an unbroken string of games at Wembley in the summer’s Euro competition. And drinking tea: “Many mugs of tea”. And apologising for things that weren’t your fault. The previous day, he says, he’d slightly stumbled on a pavement and a woman near him had told him she was sorry. “She’d done nothing wrong! That’s being English!”
And with that the man from Tooting sometimes called the “Muslim Mayor” hurried off in further search for votes.
On London has produce an 80-page guide to the 2021 London Mayor and Assembly Elections, written by On London editor Dave Hill and elections expert Lewis Baston. Make a one-time donation of £6 to the website and a copy will be emailed to you. Thank you.