Christian Wolmar is standing as a candidate in Labour's mayoral race. Photo: Getty Images
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Will Self endorses Christian Wolmar to be Labour's candidate for Mayor of London

Will Self, the respected novelist and NS contributor, has backed Christian Wolmar's bid for the London mayoralty.

Will Self has endorsed Christian Wolmar's bid for Labour's mayoral nomination in an open letter to the New Statesman

The respected author, whose 2012 work, Umbrella, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, praises the transport expert, who Self has known for "over thirty years". He describes Wolmar as "one of the foremost experts on London’s transport infrastructure – if not the foremost", and lauds him as  "a principled and honest man without a scintilla of vanity, pride, self-righteousness or narcissism". 

Revealing his hope that a Wolmar victory would prevent the London mayoralty becoming "just another political football on the Westminster pitch", Self describes him as "the ideal incumbent", both for London's straitened finances and to lobby for further powers for City Hall.

Self, who is not a Labour member, says he has registered as a £3 supporter purely to vote for Wolmar. The longshot candidate for Mayor - who faces heavyweight opposition in the shape of Tessa Jowell, David Lammy, Sadiq Khan and Diane Abbott - is a respected member of the cycling community, and is attempting to recruit 10,000 cyclists to assist his shot at the nomination.

 

The full letter is below:

 

To Whom it May Concern:

I wish it to be known that I unequivocally support Christian Wolmar’s campaign to become the Labour mayoral candidate in the forthcoming election. I have indeed registered as a Labour Party supporter purely in order to be able to take part in the selection process. I’ve known Christian as a colleague for over thirty years – at a personal level he has always struck me as a principled and honest man without a scintilla of vanity, pride, self-righteousness or narcissism (the besetting character flaws of the career politician).

Professionally, Christian is one of the foremost experts on London’s transport infrastructure – if not the foremost. Over decades, in a myriad of articles, media appearances and several books he has calmly catalogued the transport history of the capital, and suggested ways its current operation and ownership can be modified in order to fulfil ever-burgeoning demand in an equitable and affordable manner. In his courageous writing on rail and tube privatisation he has consistently exposed the flaws in the neoliberal argument that public ownership always entails inefficiency.

My belief is that if you want to understand local politics in Britain (or any other polity for that matter), follow the money. The effective tax revenue base for the London Mayoralty and the GLA is, once Transport for London revenues are set to one side, pitifully small compared to that of other metropolitan administrations worldwide. The purse-strings relating to London’s governance remain tightly in the hands of Westminster politicians. As things stand, with a few concessions such as the power to overrule planning decisions (which both the current and previous mayors have conspicuously abused), and to grandstand on ‘security issues’ via its oversight of the Metropolitan Police, the mayoral post remains essentially a lopsided combination of glorified transport manager and international marketing executive for ‘London plc’.

The justness of a Wolmar mayoralty will be that Christian is both the ideal incumbent for the current fiscal dispensation, and the perfect person to push the mayoralty in the direction of greater power commensurate with its democratic mandate. I believe his status as a relative political outsider will prevent the mayoralty from becoming – still more than it already is – just another political football on the Westminster pitch. Unlike other potential Labour candidates for the post, Christian doesn’t have to live-down previous debacles – such as the woeful ‘legacy’ of the Olympic Games – nor is he shackled by expedient alliances.

We need a London mayor who has a truly socialistic outlook: one which encompasses all Londoners, wherever they may have originated, or where they may live in this great city. We need a London mayor impervious to the blandishments of traditional powerbrokers, and capable of resisting the turbulence occasioned by the international capital flows cascading through the City. In Christian Wolmar I believe Labour – and Londoners in general – have such a candidate.

Yours faithfully,     

 

Will Self

Stockwell, London

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.