Ken will be remembered as one of the great city leaders

If you seek his memorial, look around you.

It was around midnight on Friday night, when I heard Boris Johnson's plummy Etonian tones intone his acceptance speech, that it was finally brought home to me that Labour had indeed lost the 2012 mayoral election. I felt suddenly depressed and infinitely sad. The polls had said we would for weeks. But in the final cliff-hanging hours of Thursday night I wanted to believe that somehow, defying all reason, Ken could just inch ahead on second-preference votes.

No sooner had the returning officer announced the result than the airwaves and the blogosphere were flooded with people analysing why Ken lost. But much of this punditry says more about the undying enmity towards Ken in some sections of the Labour Party than about the facts. And the most popular analysis so far is that “It’s Ken wot lost it”

The people that would blame Ken, and Ken alone, for his defeat like to point to the allegedly huge gap between his vote and the vote for Labour GLA candidates. But this analysis shows that the average gap between the two was one per cent. What Ken’s detractors always forget is that he brings with him his own loyal vote, going back to his glory days at the GLC, which compensates for any missing Labour voters.

But Ken’s enemies also ignore the fact that the Tories fought a ruthless American style campaign designed to destroy Ken as a person. And they were aided and abetted by an Evening Standard which was more rabidly pro-Tory than ever. With the benefit of hindsight maybe Ken’s tax affairs could have been managed better or the rebuttal more effective. But the Tories, and their little helpers at the Standard, zeroed in on the issue. David Cameron raised it three separate times in one session of Prime Minister's Questions. They knew smearing Ken as some kind of money-hungry, tax dodging plutocrat went to the heart of Ken’s brand. In that way, the campaign on Ken’s tax affairs owed a lot to the equally unpleasant and dishonest 2004 Republican “swift boat” campaign against the Democratic nominee John Kerry. 

The allegations of anti-Semitism which dogged Ken’s campaign were also a smear. And, when challenged, the people hinting this always denied that they were making any such allegation. In fact the origins of the differences of opinion between Ken and some on the right were really about his long-standing support of justice for the Palestinians. But these political differences morphed into an allegation of anti-Semitism, which was all the harder to rebut because it was never spelt out. However it undoubtedly had an effect. Although the average difference between Ken’s vote and the Labour vote was only 1 per cent, in Barnet and Camden, covering a big Jewish community, it was 3 per cent.

But the main reason for the undying enmity between Ken and the Labour Party establishment was that on so many issues he was right and they were wrong. It was Ken who argued for troops out of Northern Ireland and he supported the cause of the Birmingham Six when the Labour Party front bench wanted nothing to do with the issue. Ken stood up for gay rights when you got abused for it. And as Mayor of London he introduced civil partnerships and proved to Tony Blair that he could bring them in nationally without risking the wrath of the Daily Mail-reading classes.. He argued the feminist case (and promoted women) long before it was a mainstream issue in the Labour Party. And he fought for racial justice and cases like the Stephen Lawrence campaign, when mainstream Labour Party figures would not touch these issues with a barge pole.

And there is no corner of the capital where you cannot see the consequences of Ken’s vision as a political leader in London. Too many people forget that was it the money and the new objectives Ken gave the South Bank arts complex that turned it into the hugely popular destination for ordinary people it is today. First as leader of the GLC and then as London mayor he masterminded huge waves of investment in public transport. Umpteen stations were upgraded, new bus routes were introduced and new lines built including the East London line.  Ken was passionate about bringing the Olympics to London. The congestion charge was his personal decision. On the environment and green issues he was genuinely forward thinking

In a long career in politics, Ken accumulated all too many enemies. And there is no doubt he had his faults. But on his worst days he was a better and braver politician than all the people currently pontificating on his character flaws. Ken he will go down in history as one of the great big city leaders like Fiorella La Guardia in New York.  As we move into the worst slump since the 1930s, London will soon have buyer's remorse about Boris Johnson. But, in a Latin tag that Boris would appreciate, you can say of Ken and his leadership in London “Si monumentum requiris circumspice” 

Diane Abbott is the shadow public health minister.

"On his worst days he was a better and braver politician than all the people currently pontificating on his character flaws." Photograph: Getty Images.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health. 

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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