Debates over the Labour leadership have been coloured by the knowledge that the winner faces, at the very least, five years in opposition. In the same vein, the new leader of Scottish Labour (announced on 15 August) will face another chastening defeat in next year’s Holyrood elections and many years of painful rebuilding. However, there is another job that could put power in the party’s hands much sooner – if it selects the right candidate.
At first glance, the London mayoral race might seem parochial, a matter of interest to residents of the capital but not much to those outside it. That is not the case. The mayor of London is a more important figure than ever before. In the 15 years since the mayoralty was introduced, the occupant’s power has grown steadily. The mayor guides transport, housing and the police in the capital, and presides over an annual budget, of £17bn, bigger than for the whole government of Wales. The role made Ken Livingstone and then Boris Johnson significant national figures, with the ability to shape public debate in matters far beyond their direct control.
Cities outside London are recognising the benefits of the mayoral model, even if its adoption has been slow. Although Manchester voted against creating an elected mayor, under a recent devolution settlement it has been awarded one; elections for the first mayor will take place in 2017.
This should be welcomed. Voters are increasingly disillusioned with what they perceive as top-down national politics. There are also strong administrative reasons for devolving power to the city level: as Benjamin Barber’s influential book If Mayors Ruled the World argued, mayoralties are ideal administrative units in a world where national institutions are seen as detached.
However, London’s outgoing mayor has been rather more effective as a promoter of himself than of the interests of the city. Some aspects of Mr Johnson’s record merit praise: he is right to push for greater powers for his successor and he has been an energetic advocate for London abroad. His openness to immigration as an economic stimulus has also marked him out from the more insular, even xenophobic elements on the Tory back benches. But ultimately the mayor of London must be judged according to whether he or she has improved the day-to-day lives of Londoners. Mr Johnson’s record in this regard is decidedly mixed. Transport fares have risen by almost 20 per cent in real terms during his tenure. He has reacted slowly to the growing problem of air pollution, often seeming to give priority to motorists over pedestrians. A modest target of building 55,000 affordable homes in the four years up to April 2015 was missed. The two aspects of Mr Johnson’s rule that many remember most clearly – presiding over the Olympic Games and the introduction of “Boris bikes” – were the work of his predecessor, Mr Livingstone.
The high quality of Labour’s mayoral candidates is therefore heartening, and so is their racial and gender diversity. Sadiq Khan and Tessa Jowell, the front-runners, are both able politicians. Dame Tessa has the better track record, having delivered the Olympics, while Mr Khan is a good networker and campaigner. If either of them wins, the symbolism of their party’s breadth will be powerful: British public life is not awash with either high-profile older women or Muslims.
The other candidates deserve credit, too: this race has delivered the broad and open debate that so many have clamoured for in the national Labour leadership contest. David Lammy suggests that we end our infatuation with preserving the green belt; Christian Wolmar has thought deeply about London’s transport needs; Diane Abbott makes a left-wing case with vigour and verve. The contest has created more light than heat.
It is just as well that the field is so strong. Labour needs a strong candidate, as the likely Tory challenger, Zac Goldsmith, is a charismatic figure with appeal beyond core Conservative voters, just as Boris Johnson was.
Labour also needs to be shown how to win again. Perhaps Mr Johnson’s most significant legacy as mayor is to his party. His victory in 2008 was the Conservatives’ most notable triumph since the general election of 1992. Just as the Conservatives then, the Labour Party is now in need of a reminder that there was nothing inevitable about its recent electoral woes, as some fatalists seem to believe.