In its long history, London’s prestige has never been greater. Since overcoming post-war decline, it has established itself as one of the world’s pre-eminent cities: a political, economic and cultural powerhouse. Its population is forecast to reach ten million by 2030, and by the end of this decade the capital will account for a quarter of the UK’s GDP. Its universities, sports teams, galleries and restaurants are world-renowned. Britain has no greater global asset.
But, for too many Londoners, it has become a gilded cage. A febrile housing market has made property ever less affordable. As many as 430,000 households, representing nearly a million people, spend more than half of their income on housing. London’s air is among the most polluted of any European city, the cause of 9,500 premature deaths a year. Its transport system struggles to support a rising population and its fares are the most expensive in the world. It has become a playground for a deracinated, transnational plutocracy.
In his eight years as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has done little to solve these problems. Instead, distracted by his writing career and his prime ministerial ambitions, he has exacerbated them. London’s housing crisis has grown worse, its air more toxic, its fares more expensive. Infrastructure investment has been diverted to vanity projects such as the Emirates Air Line cable car and the Garden Bridge.
On 5 May, London will elect his successor. The contest – in effect, between Labour’s Sadiq Khan and the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith – once promised to be a profitable exchange of ideas. In his first term in parliament, Mr Goldsmith earned a reputation as a liberal, independent-minded Tory. Yet his campaign has degenerated into one of the most noxious in recent history.
Mr Goldsmith and senior Tories, including David Cameron, have suggested that Mr Khan is a friend of Islamist extremists. As a human rights lawyer, the Labour candidate represented those he recently described as “unsavoury characters” and has spoken alongside extremists. But at no point has he aligned himself with Islamism or anti-democratic factions. As the first Muslim to attend cabinet and as a supporter of equal marriage, he has received death threats for his participation in mainstream politics.
Mr Khan has run a consistently positive and energetic campaign. He has offered solutions to the capital’s most intractable problems, pledging, for instance, to introduce a “Living Rent” (pegged at a third of average local wages). Inspired by the New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, he has vowed to establish “Skills for Londoners”, a body that would address a long-standing economic weakness. He has promised to freeze transport fares for the duration of his term and to create new revenue streams by establishing a Transport for London trading arm. Unlike Mr Goldsmith, he supports the UK’s continued EU membership, without which London’s status as a first-rank city and financial superpower is threatened.
Experienced, business-minded, internationalist – Mr Khan possesses the qualities required of a mayor. A vote for him would be not merely a sound choice, but an inspiring one. The election of a Muslim mayor of London would be an event of international significance and a powerful symbol of the city’s cosmopolitanism. It would undercut the claim by extremists of all stripes, from Donald Trump to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that those of different faiths and backgrounds cannot coexist peacefully. Mr Khan’s journey from council estate to City Hall would inspire still more. It is one we hope Londoners will allow him to complete on 5 May.
This article appears in the 27 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism