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6 May 2021

What did we do to deserve the London mayoral election?

The capital’s mayoral race has been dominated by the uninspiring and the outright absurd. 

By Jonn Elledge

Look. Those of us who live in London do know that the rest of you hate us. We don’t even think you’re wrong to hate us, sometimes. The capital does suck up too much spending and too much attention, while other bits of the country are starving from the lack of either of them. What’s more, London has a nasty habit of taking your children from you and never giving them back again, like some kind of fairy-tale goblin. And nobody likes goblins, do they? So no wonder you all hate them. Bloody goblins.

Where was I? Right, yes: you hate London, probably, and fair enough. As a left-leaning, Remainer city, we’re a bit sick of being conflated with the government/Westminster/the Conservative Party, and being held responsible for all the ills of this country. But nonetheless, the United Kingdom really would be a lot better and a lot happier if its capital wasn’t quite so dominant and its economic and political power was more evenly spread among its regions. You’ll get no argument from me there.

But all that said – what did we do to deserve this? Really? Are all nine million of us so bad, so personally morally corrupt, that we deserve this mayoral election? 

Sadiq Khan is going to win, almost certainly comfortably. He’s fine. If you wanted to sum up the Khan mayoralty, that’s probably what you’d say: it’s fine. 

It didn’t always feel that way. At the nadir of the whole Brexit/Trump thing, many Londoners were hugely proud to have as mayor a liberal Muslim who used to be a human rights lawyer, who revelled in multiculturalism, and who’d put out statements including jokes about going to the nightclub Fabric with your girlfriend. We loved him, for pretty much all the reasons the people on social media who hated him said they hated him. 

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[See also: Sadiq Khan interview: “Covid and Brexit are a perfect storm against London”

I stand by that: I felt genuinely emotional when I read that Khan’s first official engagement as mayor was Holocaust Memorial Day. Our love for the mayor was, anyway, in spite of the horrendous things that Zac Goldsmight and other Tories had said about him during the 2016 election campaign. But after his five years in office, it’s quite difficult to work out what, beyond symbolism, it was all for. 

Khan’s record on housing is not the disaster the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick (admittedly a man who should be familiar with disastrous records on housing) has tried to paint it as; but nor is it all that great. The mayor has not achieved the step change in affordable housing, general housing supply or renters’ rights promised in those heady days of May 2016. Major transport schemes have been few and far between – Crossrail still isn’t finished, and if we can’t blame Khan for that, neither can we credit him for sorting it out.

We can blame him for not being willing to face down opposition from Westminster council and push through the much-needed pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, however. Latterly, there has been some progress on space for cycling, but before the pandemic that was moving pretty slowly, too.

It’s not that Khan’s been a bad mayor – in many ways he’s been a good mayor. It’s just hard to look at his record and see five years’ worth of achievements. 

He is going to win this election handily, however, and rightly so. In nominating as their candidate a man as incompetent as Shaun Bailey – and then in not taking the chance, presented by the year’s delay, to rethink – the Tories have made it abundantly clear quite how little they think of the capital and its residents. Not content with a history of insulting women, Hindus, Muslims, benefit claimants, and almost anybody else who crossed his path, the Tory candidate has spent half the race insulting our intelligence by trying to blame Khan for things that are demonstrably not his fault; and the other half campaigning, bafflingly, in places like Brentwood and Watford, which aren’t even in London. I’d love to have asked him about some of this, but he’s been avoiding me, as he’s been avoiding every other journalist. This is not an irrational choice on his part.

[See also: Why Shaun Bailey is the greatest gift Sadiq Khan could wish for

The smaller parties’ candidates are better: both the Lib Dems’ Luisa Porritt and the Greens’ Sian Berry have put forward some genuinely interesting and thoughtful ideas on improving life in the capital (Porritt: a proposed London Housing Company; Berry: new, flat Tube fares, to name but two). They deserved more airplay than they got. 

But we’ve barely heard about any of those candidates because all the attention has instead focused on novelty choices such as Brian Rose, an American-born podcaster using the race as a platform to spread disinformation about Covid-19; an actor and divorcee, who I’m not going to name, because that’s what he wants; an anti-lockdown conspiracy theorist, Piers Corbyn; and some chap with a bin on his head. With apologies to Count Binface, who actually has some good policies – and who, if there is any justice in the world, will absolutely smash the other two – it’s like the London mayoral race has become flypaper for arseholes. It might cost you £10,000, but the attention you’ll get will be priceless.

At any rate, Khan is going to win a truncated second term. Looking at the only other candidate likely to get into double figures, he deserves it. But London deserved a better, less depressing mayoral race than this. I really hope Khan does more with his next three years than he did with his last five. The bus “Hopper” fare only gets you so far.

[See also: Why London’s poorest risk becoming the new left behind]