Published in the London Evening Standard on 22 November 2023.
Ask thousands of Londoners about Sadiq Khan’s time as Mayor, as I have done over the last few weeks, and you might conclude he would struggle to be re-elected.
Though most would rather be here than anywhere else they can think of, many feel that life in the capital is going downhill. Hair-raising stories about crime have become commonplace in areas once considered safe and peaceful (“I’ve been mugged five times in broad daylight, once at knifepoint,” an old lady told us in a Muswell Hill focus group. “But I’m an easy target because I walk with a stick.”) People complain that traffic is worse, not because of the volume of cars but due to an irritating web of road closures and parking restrictions apparently designed to rake in revenue from exorbitant fines rather than ease congestion. Housing is so scarce that renters are compelled to snap up flats without a viewing. In the outer boroughs, people feel the less desirable aspects of inner London life creeping closer to home – not least ULEZ.
My poll found that in general, the more people care about an issue, the lower they rate Khan’s performance on it. Though voters gave him good ratings for attracting international investment, investing in the arts and speaking out against the government, they gave him their lowest score for their biggest Mayoral priority: tackling crime.
A regular complaint is that the Mayor seems more interested in PR and international showboating than in dealing with practical problems. Why, they ask, has he spent so much time banging on about Brexit and Donald Trump? Though Khan scores well for having a clear idea of what he wants to achieve, even his supporters give him lower marks for having effective policies. “He’s more of a talker than a doer,” said one participant. Or as another put it, “He’s the face of the band. He doesn’t write the songs.”
There have been some successes. People in our groups mentioned free school lunches, holding down public transport fares (even at the cost of shredding the TFL budget) and helping to improve air quality – even if many put this down to vehicle technology as much as the Mayoral traffic regime.
Overall, though, many wonder what they have to show for Khan’s eight years in City Hall. Which prompts the question: how come he’s 27 points ahead in our poll? If things are so bad, why, for Khan, are they looking so good? Four reasons suggest themselves.
First, as politicians go, Khan is not personally unpopular. Whoever they voted for, people from all walks of life told us they liked the idea that a Muslim son of a bus driver should have become Mayor of London. Even those who think little of his record see him as a decent man who would be hard to dislike.
Second, he has benefited from – cynics might say adeptly exploited – ambiguities over who exactly is responsible for what. Is the infuriating new local traffic scheme down to the Mayor, the borough, some Whitehall diktat, or an unedifying squabble between the council and TFL? Why can no-one decide who is responsible for Hammersmith Bridge? If local housing developments are intrusive or unsuitable, do we blame Khan, councillors, or national rules? And if the police struggle to contain rising crime, is that the fault of City Hall or funding from the Treasury? ULEZ is firmly associated with Khan. But overall, my poll found people more likely to blame London’s problems on the Tory government than the Mayor.
Third, his opponents’ campaigns have yet to capture public attention. I found 77% of Londoners could correctly identify a picture of Sadiq Khan (though some mistook him for Rishi Sunak, Jose Mourinho and even George Clooney) – eleven times the proportion who could do the same for Susan Hall (sometimes confused with Hillary Clinton or Nadine Dorries). Few in our groups had yet heard much about her, though some had noticed her pledge to scrap the ULEZ expansion. Khan’s call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza conflict had also helped insulate him from a prospective challenge from Jeremy Corbyn – even with the former Labour leader on the ballot, I found Khan ahead by 19 points.
Fourth, the national scene is obviously to Khan’s advantage. Convincing people in London, of all places, that the answer to all their problems is to elect another Tory is going to be a tough sell – particularly after an administration that gave them Brexit and whose recent output has hardly been calibrated to appeal to metropolitan opinion. Things might be different if London were an unhappy outpost in a country of prosperity and calm, but in many ways Londoners think they have it better than much of the rest of Britain. There is no unique ‘London problem’ for which the capital’s residents are seeking the culprit.
In other words, the stars that aligned to propel Boris Johnson to the Mayor’s office in 2008 – a national mood turning against Labour, a transcendent candidate of near-celebrity status, and a radical and increasingly unpopular opponent given to making strange statements about Hitler – are nowhere in sight.
Any number of things could change to shift this picture. Khan could get something badly wrong; Hall could alight on a signature policy powerful enough to mobilise an anti-Khan coalition while distancing herself from Westminster Tories; a prominent left-wing candidate could outflank the Mayor and eat into the Labour base. We might even see a change of fortunes nationally. But with six months to go, it is clear that dislodging Sadiq Khan will take some doing.
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