London: still a Labour city

Duncan Bowie on a resounding win but says Mayor Khan faces huge challenges

 

Sadiq Khan has been elected Mayor of London. After second preferences were counted, he won a majority of 57% to 43% – a greater margin than expected, especially when the Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith was regarded initially as a shoe-in. Many in the Labour Party thought that Khan could not win and that Baroness Tessa Jowell was the only potential Labour contender to defeat Goldsmith. The election demonstrated that London is still a Labour city – confirmed by the London Assembly results, where Labour has a majority of the super constituency seats, and took another seat from the Tories with Leonie Cooper’s victory in Wandsworth and Merton. With the Conservatives in government and divided over Europe, this was an election that Labour should have won. A defeat for Labour’s candidate would have been a failure which it would have been difficult to recover.

 

Housing

The campaign of both major parties rightly focused on housing. But when the campaign started, it was interesting how little most of the Mayoral candidates (including all six short-listed Labour nominees) knew about housing policies and the role of the Mayor. Even those who had served in Government had demonstrated little interest in this dominant issue facing London’s electorate. Most candidates made competing promises to build new homes without being very clear (LibDem Caroline Pidgeon excepted) as to how to fund them. Candidates were also less clear about how many new homes would be affordable to lower and middle income households, and where they would be built. All six major candidates opposed any development in the Green Belt. London’s housing needs could be met entirely through brownfield development, including densification of existing council estates, rather ignoring the fact that many lower income households already live there.

 

London

 

Mayor Khan may have closed off options which need to be considered to increase affordable housing supply. His policy for ‘first dibs’ for Londoners, also adopted by Goldsmith, is both inadequate and misguided. On transport, Khan made a mistake in announcing a four year freeze on tube and bus fares, before the Government announced that Transport for London (TfL) would need to be self-financing by 2020. TfL officials immediately responded that such a commitment would leave a massive hole in the London transport budget and would obstruct the continuation of the transport investment infrastructure programme. I raised this issue at the London Labour Party manifesto conference – which had little impact on Khan’s belated manifesto. This begs the question of whether the candidate once selected should write their own manifesto independently of LP policy at a national or regional level.

Sadiq Khan is in for a nasty shock. The new Emperor has few clothes

 

Khan’s comment that TfL was inefficient and could make necessary savings, dropping vanity projects such as the Garden Bridge or the Docklands cable car was unconvincing. Much better ideas for fares policy came from LibDem Caroline Pidgeon, and the Green Sian Berry. Let us target reduced fares for low income households commuting in from outer London, and reduced fares for commuters outside rush hours. We need a much more targeted approach than a simple fares freeze. The last couple of weeks of the campaign were overshadowed by a national row over whether the Corbynite party was anti-semitic. The Tories in desperation tried to associate Khan with Muslim fundamentalists and terrorists – both allegations lacking any justification, as Tory elements now concede. Introducing religion into politics is always dangerous. In the circumstances, Khan came over as moderate and reasonable. I got a bit tired of hearing and reading about the ‘son of a bus driver who grew up on a council estate in Tooting’, but the mantra worked and demonstrated that Khan was normal. Whereas his opponent, the smooth, handsome son of a multi-millionaire resorted to racist smears. Now Sadiq Khan as Mayor will discover his powers are quite limited, even if they have been increased since the Livingstone era. He depends on central Government for most of London’s resources, and the prospects of the Conservative Government giving a Labour Mayor tax-raising powers, as advocated by Boris Johnson’s London Finance Commission, are limited. With TfL needing to sell off its land to fund transport investment, delivering 50% affordable homes on this land as promised by Khan is not deliverable. Moreover, with the prime housing market in difficulty, house building in London is likely to slow down.

 

Kills off social housing

While many have been focusing on the Mayoral election: few have noticed that the Government has taken through parliament a new Housing and Planning Bill that in effect kills off social housing and radically weakens borough and Mayoral planning powers. This is more significant in its impact on Londoners than whether London has a Conservative or Labour Mayor. Sadiq Khan is in for a nasty shock. The new Emperor has few clothes.

 

This article appeared in CHARTIST #280

Chartist 280 cover