Sadiq Khan made a famous umbrella shop on New Oxford Street the starting point of his media opportunity outing this morning, which might be read as a sign of excess caution: the latest opinion poll, also out before noon, has him 22 points ahead of his nearest challenger Shaun Bailey, suggesting once again that the struggling Conservative is unlikely to rain on the Labour incumbent’s election day parade.
The poll is also the second of the four conducted so far this year to give Khan more than 50 per cent of first preference vote support, which, if replicated in actual votes on 6 May, would make him the first mayoral victor to cross the finish line without second preferences even having to be counted. It is, then, perhaps apt that his campaign message stress is very firmly on the future and the capital’s post-pandemic economic recovery.
Joining him at the gratefully-reopened vintage premises of James Smith and Sons, a visual highlight of the 38 bus route for many years (they sell good umbrellas too), were Labour’s candidate for the Barnet & Camden London Assembly seat Anne Clarke and leading figures of the Midtown Business Improvement District, which represents over 400 organisations in Bloomsbury, Holborn and Farringdon, all of which, no doubt, are anxious for business to pick up fast. What can a London Mayor do to assist?
An important part of reporting London Mayor elections is eavesdropping on the interviews of colleagues from TV. Round the corner from the brolly shop, outside the Cabana café in Renzo Piano’s primary-shaded Central Saint Giles creation, BBC London’s political editor Tim Donovan asked Khan what Londoners can expect, given the limited formal powers Mayors possess.
Khan’s answering mantra (his word) is that “jobs, jobs, jobs” is his keynote theme, what with “more than 300,000” Londoners having lost their jobs and “more than a million” furloughed and the job protection scheme due to end in September. “We’ve got to be as ambitious now as we were after the Second World War,” Khan continued, drawing, not for the first time, from British history’s well of patriotic lore. Note too his tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh.
The BBC man pressed for details. What can we expect to see? Khan ran through his string of financial assistance so far: £32 million to help Londoners into “futureproof” job sectors, for example, and £6 million into promoting the West End. He said he would use his office’s public platform and “convening power” to “bang the drum for London”, bringing investment, visitors – primarily domestic ones over the coming months – and jobs.
He also highlighted big summer sporting events – international football and cricket – and the planned re-opening of theatres next month, a critical part of the complex mesh of Central London attractions that accounts for a big part of the UK’s economic output. Khan drew a contrast between his strident Londonism (not his word) and the approach of Bailey, who he never names but characterised as “a Tory candidate who is talking London down and in the pocket of the Tory government”.
A campaign positioning, this makes sense. Where it leaves the capital’s prospects, given the sustained anti-London and anti-Khan attitude of Boris Johnson’s government, is less straightforward. Invited to consider whether a Conservative Mayor might get a better deal from a Conservative national administration, Khan insisted there’s a clear choice between hm “standing up” for the capital and Bailey who he says would roll over, including by doing away with public transport fare concessions and not insisting that the temporary increase in the cost and operating hours of the Congestion Charge be brought to an end (On London understands its imposition was strongly approved of by Johnson’s transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan).
There will, though, need to be cross-party collaboration at London government level if big changes Khan wanted when elected in 2016 are belatedly to come about. Had Crossrail’s Elizabeth Line opened in December 2018, as originally intended, and the hoped-for pedestrianisation of Oxford Street had got underway at the same time, a big legacy achievement would have already been secured. Crossrail’s advent is now scheduled for the first half of next year, but the prospects for a major reduction of traffic on London’s most famous retail avenue look far less likely.
Conservative-run Westminster Council, which is the highway authority for Oxford Street and whose jurisdiction begins a stone’s throw to the west of where Khan’s visit today took place, rejected the long-gestated scheme just before the May 2018 borough elections. Khan says some West End businesses, especially retailers, are privately “very critical of the council”, which he says needs to appreciate that “the current model isn’t working.” He regards the loss of of Debenhams and Top Shop as symptomatic and perhaps avoidable: “I genuinely think had the council worked with us then, we’d have seen retail better placed to survive the pandemic.”
He confirms that City Hall looked into TfL taking control of Oxford Street, but that would have required being given a green light by the government. “It was clear the government was not minded to do so,” Khan says. Still, Westminster now has a different leader, Rachael Robathan. Might a new attempt be made to re-think Oxford Street, once the ritual hostilities of the mayoral election are over?
Khan is complimentary about Robathan, calling her “a breath of fresh air”. He adds that he wants to work with her, her fellow Tory leader Elizabeth Campbell at Kensington & Chelsea, City Corporation policy committee chair Catherine McGuinness, and Camden’s Labour leader Georgia Gould on ensuring that the importance of Central London is understood and its old energies revived. “I’ll work with them to have a win-win,” he promises, meaning London again becoming a destination the whole world wants to visit.
For the moment, though, domestic demand is the key. Early West End footfall reports suggests that Londoners are eager to once again go Up West and spend. Covid willing, the capital’s recovery will begin at home.
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