If the polls are to be believed Sadiq Khan will win Thursday’s mayor of London election by a record margin. Khan’s 20+ point lead has never slipped and his opponents have never laid a glove on him, despite having an extra year of campaigning thanks to Covid.
The Labour incumbent has ran an energetic and efficient, if uninspiring, campaign that has tried to position himself as a champion of progressive values in contrast to the socially conservative Tory candidate Shaun Bailey. His team have also effectively used his elevation to a national personality as a way to project Khan as a statesman-like figure against a low-profile field of candidates.
Catching up between campaign visits, Khan displayed his killer edge when speaking about the electoral failure of the Labour party over the past decade.
“I’m not somebody who likes heroic failure, I’m somebody who enjoys winning,” he says.
Khan swept to the London mayoralty in 2016 promising to improve the capital’s housing crisis, freeze Tube fares, improve air quality and to make London safer. Assessing his five years in office on this basis provides for mixed reading.
Tube fares were indeed frozen for his first four years, to the detriment of Transport for London’s (TfL) finances, and the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez) has been a sterling success in helping improve the capital’s air quality. On housing, City Hall has begun building 56,239 affordable houses – just over half of his 2023 target – but rents are still eye-wateringly expensive.
There can be no doubt that he has failed on his promise to make London safer. Violent crime has risen by 24.7 per cent, including a 13.4 per cent rise in homicides, between 2015 and 2020 as gang crime has escalated in parts of the city. The mayor is always quick to blame government cuts to policing on the spiralling crime rates and has pointed out that his “public health approach” to tackling the causes of crime will take some years to pay off.
With all this in mind, I asked Khan what his largest regret had been during his Covid-elongated mayoral term.
“Nobody could have foreseen the sort of things we’ve had to deal with in the past five years, from Brexit to the Greenfell Tower fire to terror attacks to continuing austerity to the last 15 months with the pandemic,” he says.
“I’ve got the humility to accept you learn all the time in everything you do…I’ve got the humility to realise the five years haven’t been perfect, no day’s been a perfect day.”
A less than straight answer to a very straightforward question. I tried again.
He said: “Be more forceful in trying to persuade the Prime Minister to allow me to come to Cobra [emergency meetings] back in January, February, March.
“We could have got to lockdown sooner. I think that delay, the first Cobra I went into and discovered how bad things were I was quite clear from that day to bring in social distancing restrictions.”
Khan has made the capital’s Covid-19 recovery the main policy focus of his mayoral campaign, pledging to begin a £6m drive to get people back into central London on day-one of a second mayoral term.
He was criticised by some for not doing more last year after the first lockdown was lifted to encourage people back into central London as the city suffered disproportionately from Covid’s economic impacts.
He seems to have grasped the nettle on the issue now as he preaches about the importance of re-igniting central London’s economy. A City Hall report earlier this year warned that footfall in central London would never return to pre-pandemic levels without political intervention.
“We’ve got to make sure we improve people’s experience and give people incentives to come into the West End,” Khan says.
“We need a full year of programmes to encourage people to not just work from home now but come into the office, not just do leisure at home but come into the West End, not just eat at home but to come into the West End.”
A peruse through Khan’s hefty 100-page manifesto is notable for its constraint compared to spending plans from other leading candidates. While he has put together a £500m package to help the capital’s economic recovery and is vowing to attract more police funding from government, it is relatively light on flashy spending commitments.
It also contains a number of tax rises, including on council tax and the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez). The mayor has also threatened a £3.50 London boundary tax for motorists coming into the M25 if the government does not provide a more sustainable funding settlement for TfL.
The mayor warned last year that he was facing a Budget black hole in the hundreds of millions due to Covid-19 and his manifesto clearly reflects this new economic reality.
“I conduct myself by trying to be responsible, and the nearer we get to election day, the more fantastic and remarkable and unbelievable promises and figures you get from other candidates,” he says.
“I’m quite clear that we know once the pandemic began there would be a shortfall in revenue, from council tax and business rates, because it’s not us that creates wealth and prosperity, businesses do.
“It is going to be difficult for those of us in the public sector, we’ve got to tighten our belt and make sure we spend money sensibly and be realistic.”
Khan’s offering also focuses on policies that cost nothing, but likely have widespread popularity among Londoners. Things like promising to name the individual London Overground lines, proposing a committee to explore a new Olympics bid or promising to lobby the government for rent controls will cost nothing while resonating with many in the capital.
However, it’s this kind of populist approach that has often rankled Khan’s detractors. The mayor has made his name more from fighting Twitter battles with Donald Trump or campaigning for a second Brexit referendum than on his actual record in City Hall.
He’s an adroit operator who is always happy to pick a fight with the government at the right moment or latch onto a popular progressive cause among London’s disproportionately left-wing population. For many on the right, he has become a lightning rod of abuse for his perceived willingness to be a poster boy for the Brexit culture wars.
“It’s not something I sought or courted – it’s one of the inevitabilities when you have the values I have,” Khan says.
“I think pitting people against each other is not sensible, I’m somebody who tries to bring people together.
“I think culture wars are basically a recipe for the divisions there are continuing and becoming more entrenched.”
In any case, it can’t be denied that Sadiq Khan has proven to be one of Labour’s most successful politicians since Tony Blair. He’s a national figure on the verge of winning back-to-back elections in one of the most prominent elected offices in the nation – a far cry from Labour’s fortunes in Westminster and beyond.
As someone who grew up during Labour’s wilderness years of the 1980s and who served in government under New Labour, he is utterly sick of the party’s current electoral malaise.
“We’ve got to get back into the election winning habit,” he says.
“There was a saying in Labour in the 80s which I hate, the saying was ‘no compromise with the electorate’.
“You must compromise with the electorate, because you can only improve people’s lives, you can only transform communities when you win elections.
“We’ve got to have difficult conversations and we’ve got to listen to people’s anger, we’ve got to listen to people’s unhappiness with us and learn from that and try to change our party so we’re more relevant right across the country.”
It’s this pragmatism and hunger to win that has put Khan in position to win a second term of City Hall. It may also also see him back in Westminster for Labour after the next General Election rolls around in 2024.