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2 March 2024updated 04 Mar 2024 10:41am

Sadiq Khan is lucky to have such useless opponents

The London mayor is a decent man, but a beatable politician.

By Jonn Elledge

Just over a fortnight ago London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced the biggest change to the capital’s Tube map in years: some lines were changing colour. Gone would be the uniform orange for the entire 113-station London Overground network; in would come different colours and names for each of the system’s six routes, recognising groups or institutions of importance to the city’s various communities: Windrush, Mildmay, Suffragette.

As a way of making a complex network more usable for a price that was, even in these straitened times, pennies to a city on the scale of London, this was a pretty clever move. (It was also one – I should declare my interest – I’ve been boring on about for years.) But predictably enough, a lot of people hated it, accusing the mayor of “virtue signalling” (by acknowledging that London has non-white people and women who aren’t the late Queen in it) or “wasting money” (by spending 0.01 per cent of the amount of money national government has thus far spent on not building HS2).

There is, though, if you really wanted to be picky, a fairer criticism available: all this feels quite small. The other changes to the Tube map that have happened recently – the Battersea extension, the Elizabeth line – all pre-date Khan’s mayoralty, which is fine because these things take time, but no new major projects have begun on his watch. There are many reasons for this outside his control: austerity, Brexit, Covid, a national government hostile to both the city he governs and the mayor personally. But nonetheless, it is striking that Khan’s biggest personal contribution to the development of London’s Tube is to change some signs.

Look across the piece, in fact, and it’s hard to pinpoint eight years’ worth of achievements from the mayor. The housing crisis, already in full swing when Khan arrived in 2016, is still ascending horrifying new heights. The six-figure salary paid to London’s “night mayor” Amy Lamé feels so out of whack with the decline in the capital’s nightlife over which she’s presided that, in parts of the internet, it’s become a meme. There was the bus “hopper fare”, introduced to address the inequity of allowing Tube passengers to change line without paying a second fare, while not allowing (generally poorer) bus passengers to do the same; and the expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone, forced on London by a Conservative Treasury and then attacked by Conservative politicians. But it’s surprisingly hard to identify big signature achievements for which Khan will be remembered.

And yet, with two months to go until election day, he seems very likely to become the first mayor of London to serve a third term. A YouGov poll this week gave him a 25-point lead, and more than twice the vote share of his main rival, Conservative Susan Hall – a lead convincing enough to render the government’s attempt to put its finger on the scales by changing the electoral system pointless, as well as cynical. Even the most pessimistic betting sites have him as the runaway favourite.

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Why the apparent contradiction? Khan has, to be fair, had a tough hand to play. The Brexit referendum, barely a month after his own election, undermined the economic model through which London had remade itself as a multicultural world city. That didn’t just mean a certain amount of firefighting, but a national government increasingly antagonistic towards the city and its values.

The voters, though, are not famed for their fairness, so perhaps there’s another reason: Sadiq Khan has simply been extremely lucky in his opponents. The Tory party, plumbing new depths of unpopularity nationwide, is at its least popular in a city it’s repeatedly attacked as a symbol of everything wrong with the modern world. Its outriders, meanwhile, have consistently tried to blame the mayor for things that either aren’t obviously real (London’s largely imaginary crime wave) or that obviously aren’t his fault (the pandemic-fuelled collapse in TfL fare revenue).

Each of the candidates the party has put up against him, what’s more, has been somehow worse than the last. Zac Goldsmith, back in 2016, seemed potentially credible until he got in front of an interviewer, when his poor grasp of London’s geography made it seem unnervingly like he’d never visited London at all. He also made the baffling decision to portray the obviously liberal Khan as some kind of extremist, ruining his own reputation and his prospects alike. In 2021, Shaun Bailey stumbled from gaffe to gaffe and spent a baffling amount of time campaigning in places, such as Brentwood in Essex, that weren’t in the capital at all.

Susan Hall, meanwhile, is the embodiment of online conservative culture war, that goes down great on GB News but doesn’t seem well-suited to somewhere proud of, even smug about, its tolerance and diversity. She also keeps stumbling into situations for which “gaffe” would be a flattering label, like her claim to have been pickpocketed on the Tube – a sign, she said, of Sadiq’s lawless London – when what had actually happened was that she’d dropped her wallet. (It was later returned; nothing had been taken.) “If you can’t be trusted with your wallet,” asked LBC’s Nick Ferrari, “why can you be trusted with London?” Good question.

And through all this, there, on the other side, was Sadiq Khan – a liberal Muslim who’s been an ally to London’s Jewish community; who launched the night Tube by cracking jokes about coming home after “a late night out with your missus”; whose mentions on social media are a pit of toxic racist abuse but who remains, somehow, cheerful. Every time his opponents throw out another nonsensical and Too Online accusation, it highlights his comparative decency: he looks like modern London, in exactly the way they do not. Sadiq Khan has not done as much with his eight years in office as many of us had hoped. Perhaps, if re-elected, a Labour government in Westminster would change this; perhaps it won’t. Either way, though, as the Tories rage about the fact they still can’t beat this man, they might consider this: they have no one to blame but themselves.

[See also: Mark Drakeford doesn’t understand Wales]


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