26 April 2021

Sadiq Khan’s record in London is dismal – so why can’t the Tories capitalise?

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It may seem like the London mayoral election offers something for everyone. There’s Count Binface for the Boomers (his manifesto promises London will join the EU and London Bridge will be renamed after Phoebe Waller – only a dad would think that was funny); Laurence Fox for UKIPers who don’t have enough to be angry about now we’ve left Europe; and YouTube star Niko Omilana, who’s polling at 19% among 18-24s. But there’s no real doubt about who’s going to win on May 6: Sadiq Khan.

The latest poll has the incumbent mayor on 47%, with the Conservatives’ Shaun Bailey trailing in second place on 26%. So there’s no proper contest, we’re going to get a mayor with a questionable record and a policy platform that combines the pointless with the actively harmful. One of Khan’s more eye-catching manifesto pledges is to launch a Commission looking into the effectiveness of drugs laws – laws which he has no power to change. A centrepiece of his campaign is the introduction of rent controls, a plan guaranteed to squeeze the capital’s already sparse supply of housing.

Sadiq Khan’s popularity is down to the fact he’s a charismatic guy with a powerful backstory and a great symbolic figurehead for London. Getting called a “stone called loser” by Donald Trump certainly did him no harm in the eyes of much of his electorate. But what has he actually achieved? No one could credibly claim he’s fixed the housing crisis: he’s only delivered 28,657 new affordable homes compared with the 39,935 Boris Johnson managed in his second term. The number of households in temporary accommodation has been rising and, at 60,000, is currently the highest it’s been since 2006.

Crime has spiralled during his term in office. Ten teenagers have already been stabbed to death in London this year. In the year to March 2016, the last of Boris Johnson’s tenure, there were 9,752 instances of knife crime – by March 2020 that had gone up to 15,928. That figure dipped during lockdown, but as normality has started to return, so has violence. A few weeks ago, I woke up to find my street cordoned off because of an arson attack. A few days later a man was stabbed in broad daylight on my local high street. Prosecutions for rape and domestic violence have slumped, and the recent demonstrations following the death of Sarah Everard have shown just how unsafe many people, especially women, feel on the streets of the capital.

When anything goes wrong in London, Khan’s first reaction is to blame the Government. And while things like Grenfell and delays and overspend on Crossrail are outside his individual control, he hasn’t shown much leadership on them either. During the pandemic he’s been almost entirely absent, occasionally popping up to cripple businesses further by calling for even tougher restrictions. Being a leader at a time like this is an unenviable burden, but other mayors, like Ben Houchen and Andy Burnham, have shown how to do it well.

So it’s an indictment of the Conservatives’ campaign that they’re not doing better against an opponent like Khan. In Shaun Bailey they have a decent candidate, whose experience growing up on a council estate and working in youth rehabilitation make him well placed to tackle Labour on housing, racism, crime and social mobility. But he just hasn’t cut through and, without wishing to adopt Sadiq’s technique of blaming everything on Westminster, that has more to do with the Government than with Bailey himself.

It increasingly feels like the Conservatives have abandoned London. The Brexit campaign pitched liberal metropolis against left behind region and the Government picked its side. At the 2019 election the Party pivoted away from the kind of values that won David Cameron his (slim) majority in 2015 to target traditional Labour seats. The Tory MPs who won as a result are fiercely loyal to their constituents, to the point of being hostile to projects they perceive as delivering benefits to London and other big cities at the expense of their local area, like HS2. This Government’s occasional forays into the culture wars over flags, statues and acronyms jar with left-leaning London, which tends to sympathise with groups like Black Lives Matter. And its central narrative, its promises of ‘levelling up’, are deliberately focussed outside London and the south east.

So it’s not all that surprising that the Conservatives seem to be putting more energy into the Hartlepool by-election than into the mayoral campaign. But neglecting London would be a grave mistake.

Contrary to the cliché, Londoners are not all out-of-touch elites. Many face similar challenges to people in Red Wall seats: 28% live in relative poverty compared to 22% in the country as a whole, high housing costs are a burden on many families, the pandemic has hit businesses that rely on commuters especially hard, and it’s ripped the heart out of the pubs, restaurants, theatres, museums and music venues that make London one of the greatest cities on earth.

Despite that, the capital still generates around a fifth of UK GDP. Services account for about 80% of UK economic output and 46% of exports. Increasing domestic manufacturing is important, and potentially transformative for parts of the country that suffered from the decline of coal and steel, but the structure of the economy would have to change dramatically for other industries to catch up with those that largely emanate from the capital.

Like it or not, London is the goose that lays Britain’s golden eggs. But with plans to hit businesses with a rise in corporation tax, this lacklustre mayoral campaign, and the retreat from metropolitan ideals, the Conservatives aren’t doing enough to tend it. That’s disappointing for those of us who hoped that our former mayor would continue to champion our city as Prime Minister.

The Tories won the last election with a big offer to seats and sections of society that felt they had been ignored, but they promised to govern for the whole United Kingdom. The task then was to heal a divided country and Covid has only made that harder. But the Government’s priorities for the recovery are quite difficult to distinguish from its plans for levelling up, and that gives the impression it thinks London can sort itself out. And, hey, if it doesn’t that’ll be Sadiq Khan’s fault. That’s not a strategy that screams ‘one nation’.

Count Binface may wish to cut the capital off from the rest of the country, but it’s the Conservatives that risk actually allowing it to happen.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.