London election: If Sadiq Khan wants to be mayor he needs to come up with some ideas

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ondon faces the worst year in its modern history. It must emerge from the nastiest disease since the plague of 1665. It has to recover from the deepest economic recession since the Second World War. And it has been hit by a government-imposed trade sanction, Brexit, which could cripple or at very least sorely damage its most important industry, global finance. At such a time, London needs a Dick Whittington, a Thomas Gresham and a Herbert Morrison all in one. What has it got? A Sadiq Khan. Much of this depends on London’s boroughs, on them making their streets more adaptable and pedestrian-friendly. This depends on conserving shops, pubs and cafés rather than casually pulling them down to become flats. It means knowing what makes people want to experience a city such as London. Khan needs to gather London together and tell it what this means. It means renaissance.    

London’s Mayor, who launched his re-election bid yesterday, is clearly a modest and decent chap who we are told means well, but he must now morph into a political giant. He has to grab every power available to him and fight for London’s revival, and do so at a time when he says “there has never in my lifetime been more of an anti-London feeling, in the civil service, in politics, in the country”.

Some things Khan cannot do. He cannot reverse Brexit and he cannot order London back to work. He has been given no power over the capital’s hospitals or vaccination service for which to claim credit. All he is allowed to do is carp — or clap.  What he can do is use the power of his office to get the world to beat a path back to London’s door as of this spring. Brexit and Covid have sent foreign visitor numbers plummeting. Khan must do everything to get at least the rest of Britain up to town. He must promote the theatres and museums as soon as they open. He must fill the parks with enjoyment and back the arts. He must become Mr West End, Mr Thames, Mr Tourism.

Transport for London is facing financial ruin, with a reported loss of a staggering £3.5 billion this year and possibly £1.5 billion next. There is talk of Beeching-style cuts to train services and a butchering of the already over-capacity bus network. What is Khan’s plan for all this? He could do something dramatic like extend his congestion charge to the Greater London Authority boundary and possibly net an extra £1 billion. Is he up for it? Dire warnings have been given of a knife crime surge as schools go back to work. Where does Khan stand with the hard-pressed Met police chief, Cressida Dick, who deserves his political support? He should be publicly standing alongside her against her recent critic, the Home Secretary Priti Patel. Meanwhile the Government has completely funked its “oven-ready” proposals to reform adult social care. Surely a smart city such as London has a plan of its own — as did Manchester.

London’s Mayor has been starkly understated compared with those for Manchester or the West Midlands. Ken Livingstone as mayor showed what an office holder could do with the biggest electoral mandate in Britain — two million electors — to muscle his way to public attention. But a mayor needs to show what he wants attention for. No one knows what Khan wants apart from more blocks of luxury flats.

The seasoned observer of the mayoral scene, LSE’s Tony Travers, is pleased London has “a politically moderate, respectable mayor” but he longs for “someone with a programme of proposals and the energy to get out and convince people to deliver them”. Khan always seems to be waiting for something to happen to him, preferably something on camera.

London still has much going for it. Its historic residential and creative quarters are unequalled in Europe. The imminent decline in its office and retail employment may take the heat off its property industry, but it augurs well for rents, house prices and thus new businesses. As commuting dwindles, inner London should become more affordable for the young and the adventurous. It was intriguing during the summer break from lockdown to see the traffic-free streets of Soho and Shoreditch suddenly burst into life.

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