24 July 2023

Maaate, Londoners deserve better than a Mayor obsessed with inane PR


Sadiq Khan is suddenly under pressure. For years under his mayoralty, Londoners have seen broken promises and a failure to deliver. He has provided dire mismanagement of Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police. The Council Tax precept has been pushed up, while the housing shortage has got ever more acute. All the while he has blamed the Government and breezily insulted his critics as a means of evading proper scrutiny. 

That spell has been broken by the constituents of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. The Conservative victory was described as a ‘shock’ by some journalists and pundits, but it was far less of a surprise to those who had been knocking on the doors in the area ahead of polling day. Labour and Conservative canvassers unite in declaring that Khan was responsible for the result with his policy of extending the ULEZ zone to outer London.

For those unfamiliar with the scheme, it would mean drivers with older cars being charged £12.50 for driving into London. Fine for the rich, who can either afford the charge or already have a modern, ULEZ-compliant car. Not so fine for the already struggling poor. The Mayor of London, who earns £155,000 a year and is driven about in a £300,000 armoured Range Rover, comes across as disdainful when anyone dares criticise his policy. Meanwhile his Labour colleagues, keen to restore their credentials as the party of the working class, look on in despair – as does Keir Starmer, judging by his reaction to the defeat.

The Mayor insists his scheme is vital to reducing pollution and that his critics don’t care if children die of asthma. Others believe his motive is to raise revenue and that there would be fairer and more cost-effective ways to improve air quality. 

A difficulty for Khan would be that if he ditches his ULEZ policy, what would he have left? He loves the status, the trappings and photo opportunities with celebrities. But where is the substance? Say what you like about Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, but they would at least get stuff done. They would cut deals with property developers, or central government or the International Olympic Committee to get major projects delivered.

Khan’s mayoralty has proven, to coin a phrase, deeply superficial. 

To fill the void we have a steady flow of announcements that are either irrelevant or beyond his remit. Thus he will call for legalising drugs, or imposing rent controls or rejoining the European Union. Or we have irrelevant initiatives of pure gimmicky, sanctimonious vacuousness. One recent example was banning an advertisement for Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding, a comedy currently showing at the Wonderville Theatre on Haymarket. It featured a picture of a wedding cake. The Mayor said it breached Transport for London (TfL) rules, which seek to keep unhealthy foods from being displayed. 

Have you spotted that new units, commissions, task forces, panels, working parties, czars and champions tend to proliferate most from politicians who have no idea what they should do? Khan is not the only offender in this respect but he is a particularly bad case. The Spectator recently reported that Amy Lamé, the Mayor’s Night Czar has had a 40% salary increase to £116,925 a year. Meanwhile, the pubs and clubs continue to close down at an alarming rate under the burden of taxation and bureaucracy. The Mayor’s extra regulation on Uber, pushing up the cost, has not helped. Nor, of course, did the lockdown – which the Mayor felt didn’t go on long enough and should have been stricter. 

Khan’s singular talent for peripheral PR stunts reached its apotheosis with last week’s launch of a campaign to encourage men to challenge sexist comments or behaviour by saying ‘Maaate’ to each other. In case you’re wondering, the elongated version of ‘Mate’ is felt to give the rebuke some added punch, and it’s backed up some truly spurious ‘behavioural science’ about why this particular combination of letters has such potency. 

The response to the campaign has been one of predictable derision. I doubt I will try it on my own mates any time soon, and I find it hard to imagine anyone doing so other than in a spirit of ironic mockery.

Do we imagine the Mayor will be trying this out on his own pals? And what about Khan’s own behaviour at London Assembly meetings? It could be argued that he adopts a patronising tone to his questioners on a non-discriminatory basis. But some have suggested that women are more likely to be interrupted and insulted by him than the men are. Maaate! 

Khan deserves to be beaten next May, even if the chances of that happening seem vanishingly small. However, I do recall being a Conservative councillor in Hammersmith in 2007 when the Tories were struggling to find anybody willing to stand as Mayor of London in the following year’s election, so clear did it seem that Ken Livingstone would be re-elected. The more people who told Boris it was unwinnable the more determined he was to take the plunge, then go on to a famous victory and to win again four years later. 

Of course, Boris was already a ‘big name’ which Susan Hall, the Tory candidate this time, is not. The demographic changes have not helped either. But there may be some hope in that fact that next Mayoral election will be on a ‘first past the post’ basis, and Jeremy Corbyn has ‘not ruled out’ standing as an independent, which could split off quite a few socialist votes. 

Even if Khan is too arrogant to abandon his ULEZ policy, he might become a bit less cocksure in the months ahead – especially if he still has his eye on Keir Starmer’s job. And if the Uxbridge by-election tells us anything, it’s that Labour victories in the capital are anything but a foregone conclusion.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.