Thank heavens — it’s nearly over. The nastiest election campaign for decades will end on Thursday with the announcement of a new mayor. But let’s be honest — beyond tribal political pride, is the job really worth it? Is it really what Sadiq and Zac think it is?
When mud isn’t being slung, it’s been an election characterised by promises that the mayor will struggle to fulfil alone.
They’ve all done it to an extent. But while Sian Berry and Caroline Pidgeon give the impression that they’ve looked up what the mayor’s powers actually are, the two front-runners, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, have at times seemed that they’re making up the job descriptions in their heads.
Yes, the mayor has powers. But many of London’s big decisions are still in the hands of boroughs or central government. Getting the keys to City Hall doesn’t give you a magic wand, no matter what the campaign slogans say.
You can’t always do what you want as mayor
Here’s a simple example: the Freedom Pass. The ticket that allows London’s older and disabled people free travel is safe in Sadiq Khan’s hands, we’ve been repeatedly told. But it’s got very little to do with the mayor. The pass is run by the boroughs and funded by them and central government. If they collectively decided to scrap it, it’d pose a massive headache. Indeed, there was a huge row between London Councils and Ken Livingstone over the pass’s future back in 2007.
The boroughs can also act as a block on Khan’s plans to tackle London’s housing crisis — the seeds for which have been sown by national policies over many years, leaving the mayor with a relatively limited toolkit.
Telling developers to give Londoners “first dibs” on new homes may seem straightforward if you’re an MP aspiring to be mayor. But it’s the boroughs in charge of enforcing planning policy. Unless Khan wants to call in every single big development to decide himself — maybe not a bad idea in itself, but expensive and time-consuming — he’s leaving a lot in the hands of councillors who might disagree with him, and let developers off the hook.
Even more basic errors are being made by Zac Goldsmith, who may not have noticed who collects his bins. “I will clean up our capital so London can be proud of its parks and streets,” he says, ignoring the fact that most are in the hands of councils. London’s councils collect rubbish and recycling in 32 different ways — and many are proud of their recycling records. There’s nothing stopping a belligerent borough blocking plans for common standards, especially if they don’t think a mayor’s proposals are good enough.
Goldsmith does it again on transport, pledging to take over south London’s National Rail routes. “I will ensure TfL takes over these failing lines,” he says. It’s not his decision to make, though — it’s central government’s. Just ask Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, both refused permission to do just that by Conservative and Labour governments.
From independent spirits to party animals
Back when the post of London mayor was being created, then-PM Tony Blair envisaged it being filled by an independent figure above politics such as Richard Branson. Big Issue founder John Bird was another figure mooted at the time. Blair got his independent — it just happened to be Ken Livingstone.
Since those days of purple pro-Ken posters, the mayoral contest has regressed into politics as usual. Livingstone was welcomed back as an electoral asset (how times change) by Labour, while Boris Johnson has used his stint as mayor to assert his credentials as a Tory-leader-in-waiting.
Now both lead candidates are closely tied into their party machines. We have Zac Goldsmith boasting how closely he can work with David Cameron and George Osborne, leaving you with the inescapable feeling that London might as well be run by Whitehall instead. The once-eager environmentalist seems a distant memory now the party machine’s in charge, with the one-time Ecologist editor pushing roadbuilding and an underwhelming policy on air pollution.
As for Sadiq Khan, he’s been a key cog at the heart of Labour’s powerful London party machine for some years. The capital’s Labour boroughs may share a brand name but differ widely in their attitudes to important issues. If it comes to a battle between residents and an errant Labour borough, what will a proud party man like Khan do?
The mayoralty was created, in part, so London could have a loud advocate. But if Goldsmith won’t challenge a Conservative government and Khan won’t criticise Labour councils, it’s tempting to wonder quite what the point of the job is.
Day one: learn what the job is
It’s a tricky balancing act. The GLC was abolished because it caused too much trouble for Margaret Thatcher’s government. At an event a couple of weeks back, the LSE's Tony Travers — the fount of all London government knowledge — suggested the mayoralty was a success simply because it had lasted 16 years without being abolished.
But with turnout widely predicted to be well down on past elections, it’s clear that this poll has failed to spark Londoners’ imaginations. London’s a vast and complex place — and deserves better than rash pledges on fares, cheap mud-slinging and dressing up current policies as if they’re something new.
Next Monday the new mayor will stroll into City Hall to start work. Judging by their campaigns, both front-runners have a lot of learning to do on just what their powers will be. There are plenty of good ideas out there to nick — Sian Berry and Caroline Pidgeon’s manifestos are good starting places — and the winner won’t be short of advice.
But then, the winner’s got four years to show us why we should care who wins City Hall. Because if 2020’s campaign is as tedious and unimaginative as this one, why should anyone stroll down to the polling station?