2 January 2019

Londoners deserve better than Sadiq Khan’s empty gestures


The capital had just welcomed in 2019 with a fireworks display that its Mayor, Sadiq Khan, couldn’t resist politicising. The London Eye was lit up in the colours of the EU flag to show his opposition to Brexit. Surely New Year’s Eve should not be a time to exploit political divisions. It should be when we all come together, cross arms, hold hands with our neighbour and sing Auld Lang Syne.

The fireworks should be for all Londoners to enjoy. Not just the 2,263,519 who voted Remain, but also the 1,513,232 who voted Leave. After all, everyone who lives in the capital is expected to pay for them. (Incidentally that figure of 1.5 million Londoners who voted Leave was higher than the 1.3 million Londoners (including second preferences) who voted Khan.)

Khan offered a variety of flimsy defences for his nakedly political gesture, arguing that it would “celebrate diversity” and show the world that the capital is “still open for business”. He also suggested it would show EU citizens that after Brexit they will be welcome to stay in London.

Yet by suggesting that anybody has proposed otherwise it actually implies such matters are in doubt. There is also the muddle of supposedly offering reassurance about Brexit when the Mayor is still campaigning to prevent it taking place.

If we really must be so crass as to have a fireworks display devoted to Brexit it should have been global rather than Eurocentric. The message should be that London is an international city. Confident and outward-looking, open to doing business with the entire planet. The welcoming spirit will certainly continue for those who have made their home here from other EU states — as it will for those from elsewhere.

Mayor Khan has shown great energy when it comes to photo opportunities. He has always got time for a selfie. Amidst the gimmickry and gestures, great effort has been made to give an impression of activity. New units, commissions, taskforces, panels, working parties, Czars, and champions. Seldom will a day have gone by without the well-staffed City Hall press office having announced something.

In a tweet on New Year’s Day, Khan listed his achievements for 2018. Top of his list was that the year saw “City Hall deliver our Violence Reduction Unit & Met Violent Crime Taskforce”. But 2018 was also a year which saw crime in London — including violent crime — increase.

It was Plato who is supposed to have reflected that “an empty vessel makes the loudest sound”. There is probably some formula that could be devised based on an inverse ratio of the number of announcements politicians make and their achievements of substance.

Crossrail, also known as the Elizabeth Line, was supposed to open last month. That has now been pushed back to August 2020. It is a big infrastructure project, costing £16 billion, with new tunnels and stations. As it is owned by Transport for London, the buck stops with the Mayor of London. He is the Chairman of TfL. Many will shrug at such failings. The shock would have been if a state-funded scheme had been delivered on time and within budget. But at the very least, the Mayor has shown a lack of transparency about how our money is being spent. He has been evasive about what he knows and when he knew it.

For all Boris Johnson’s image of befuddlement, his delivery of the 2012 London Olympics was impressive. Before he became Mayor the costs were spiralling out of control.

Mayor Khan’s attention seems to wander when it comes to the serious work. His basic priorities should be fighting crime, increasing the housing supply, and improving the transport system. His promises in these areas have been broken. When challenged, he passes the buck to central government. But if he couldn’t deliver on his promises how can he justify making them? If he really has no power what is the point of voting for him?

The truth is that the Mayor does have power. His budget is considerable — indeed it has increased, with a higher precept on the capital’s council taxpayers.

But where has the money gone?

Alice Thomson in The Times reports that while public transport use is down: “Mr Khan has done little except oversee a large rise in salaries. TfL’s 26,994 staffers last year took home £2.25 billion in wages, a rise of 17.6 per cent on the previous year. That is an average of £83,337 each, with the customer service director, Brian Woodhead, earning £292,137.” Some tube drivers are earning over £100,000 a year.

The story is similar in the Mayor’s own backyard. Indeed, since Khan became Mayor the number of officials at City Hall has increased from 795 to 953.

So while Khan might be a “do nothing” Mayor failing to get a grip on priorities, I’m afraid it would be a mistake to those of libertarian sympathies, who favour less government, to take much comfort from that. If allowed to, bureaucracies will grow and budgets overshoot.

Sir John Cowperthwaite served as financial secretary in Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971. More than anyone else Sir John was responsible for the free market miracle there which has continued ever since. He once told Dan Hannan: “Doing nothing is a full-time job. Don’t imagine that laissez-faire means putting your feet up. All officials want to extend their powers; all bureaucracies will grow if they can. To stop it happening you need to be at your desk before the civil servants come in and still be there when they go home.”

While Sadiq Khan indulges in foreign policy — with attacks on Donald Trump and pointless meetings with Michel Barnier — the Mayor is neglecting his proper role. Londoners are paying for more government, while getting worse results.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.