The most tedious thing about next week’s London Mayoral election isn’t the depressingly low calibre of the candidates. It isn’t even the overwhelming likelihood that Sadiq Khan will be re-elected. No, the most tedious thing is the fact that it needn’t have to take place at all.
In 1998, voters in the capital were given a referendum on whether or not we wanted to have a Mayor of London. It was the first time I voted — and I was delighted to be in the distinct minority of people who said “no”.
But we lost, and we lost bad. We made up just 28% of the vote, among a measly total turnout of just 34%. And yet, given the opportunity again, I would vote the same again.
Back then, the likely candidates to lead the nation’s capital ranged from Jeffrey Archer to Ken Livingstone. It did not require a clairvoyant to know where this was heading. In the end Jeffrey Archer went to prison and Ken Livingstone did not. So Ken Livingstone became Mayor.
Two embarrassing terms later, it soon became clear that the trouble with City Hall lay in the same problem that distinguishes all superfluous offices in government. People always equate expanding layers of government with increasing accountability; but the truth is that the more there are, the harder it is to hold people to account.
During Livingstone’s reign, for example, whenever the underground service ground to a halt there was always a fight over whether he was responsible or not. It was the same with every budgetary issue.
And yet, somehow, the most memorable feature of Livingstone’s time in office was the way he managed to impose his own outlandish foreign policies on his fiefdom. For example, while Westminster looked somewhat askance at Hugo Chavez’s regime as it set about crashing Venezuela, Livingstone made special alliances with it. Similarly, while the Government was distinctly pro-Washington, the Mayor of London, by contrast, was not; when President Bush visited the capital in 2003, Livingstone declined to meet him and denounced his arrival by calling him “the greatest threat to life on this planet that we’ve probably ever seen”.
Now the reason I believe it’s worth returning to Livingston isn’t to justify my vote in 1998, but merely to point out that the problems at the heart of London’s mayoralty are endemic. The powers that come with the position are too unclear — or have, at the very least, the potential to be made unclear. And then there is a more obvious pitfall: that the position attracts — possibly requires — figures who believe that London is merely a stage to stand on; a means to project themselves on to the wider world.
To that extent, the problems of Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty are no different from those of his predecessors. Just like those before him, Khan has been able to jump from one photo op to another, looking the other way as his city burns.
For instance, take crime in the capital. Under Khan, knife crime in London has remained at near-record levels, while rape prosecutions have slumped. But whenever the mayor is challenged on these issues, he avoids taking responsibility for them, preferring instead to prevaricate over “institutional racism” or talk about how London’s crime wave is caused by cuts ordered by Whitehall. The message is clear: it’s not my problem.
Like Livingstone before him, Khan has also decided that he can make up for what he lacks in actual power with narcissistic grandstanding. His time in City Hall has coincided with a number of major events on the national and international stage, into all of which he has tried to interject himself.
When, for example, the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016, Khan didn’t seem to care that it was a national plebiscite — or that 40% of Londoners voted for Brexit. Instead, he sought to weaponise the result, using it as an opportunity to present London as distinct from the rest of the backward country. He continued to parade the EU flag at every opportunity, up to and including turning the city’s 2018/19 New Year’s Eve celebrations into a tribute to Brussels.
Emulating Livingstone, Mayor Khan has even tried to make political capital by opposing an American President. In fact, he arguably took things one step further during President Trump’s visit to the UK in 2019; before the President had even touched down at Heathrow, Khan fired off a newspaper article comparing him to the “fascists of the 20th century”.
Yet there are, of course, no prizes for guessing which of Khan or Trump went on to establish a totalitarian-sounding “Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm”. Put to one side the fact that one of the activists hired by Khan to review London’s landmarks was sacked within a fortnight for being anti-Semitic; far more striking was the decision of the Mayor’s office to announce the findings of the Commission in advance — a move seemingly taken straight from the Stalinist playbook.
Naturally, it is easy to scoff at such a fatuous approach to politics. But dismissing Khan in this way forgets that while he has busied himself with his “progressive” agenda, it has all been at the expense of addressing the genuine political issues that concern his constituents. Public transport in London has never been more expensive or inadequate — a reality made all the worse by the introduction of a new Green “ultra low emissions zone” that has made car-travel eye-wateringly expensive. Meanwhile house-building, which is so badly needed to address the shortage of affordable property, has actually gone down since he assumed office.
So what has Mayor Khan done? Well, one part of the Mayor’s budget has rocketed enormously: his PR budget, which has risen by a third since he took office. And perhaps Khan’s lead in the polls justifies the spend; it certainly seems to confirm the fact that, even if you do nothing very well, you can still succeed by spending on self-promotion. Either way, it’s a grim sign for the future of democracy in the capital, and a late — if pointless — vindication of the 28% who saw this coming over 20 years ago.