Labour mayoral race: Sadiq Khan has the best answers for the capital

Boris Johnson

A composite candidate assembled from the policies, passions and experience of the six people who hope to run for Labour in the London mayoral election next year would be close to ideal.

The experience of Tessa Jowell, the devolution plan of Gareth Thomas, the green vision of Christian Wolmar, the energy of Sadiq Khan, the commitment to equality of Diane Abbott and David Lammy’s stress on social solidarity would, if well combined, make an enticing manifesto. The person who becomes Labour’s candidate on 11 September should do precisely that. I think that candidate should be Khan.

Coming to this view has not been easy. For 13 weeks I’ve pondered the six hopefuls’ policies, listened to them speak and witnessed four public hustings, two of which I’ve chaired. All six have come up with good ideas, yet none has really stood out or managed to fully describe how they would re-shape Greater London with the constrained powers and resources City Hall enjoys. Khan, though, edges it for me thanks to a blend of principle and practicality that could evolve into a winning programme for constructive change in a city that sometimes seems to be booming out of control.

On the bedrock issue of housing he has played to the crowd over “poor doors”, private developers and foreign buyers, as have other candidates. Like it or not (and I don’t), the failure of successive national governments to invest as they should has meant that these boo-fodder have helped boroughs get more “affordable” housing built than they might have otherwise, as some Labour boroughs and Ken Livingstone, a backer of Khan, could attest. Like his rivals, Khan has pledged to press private developers to improve their contributions to affordable homes and other benefits derived from planning deals, such as schools and street improvements. Good. But pressing is one thing, getting might be something else.

Such is the predicament the next mayor will inherit. Purism will be a luxury, pragmatism a necessity. But Khan marks himself out, notably from bookies’ favourite Jowell, in his approach to building on public land, where the potential for increasing amounts of affordable housing is greatest. He is properly cautious about Transport for London (TfL) partnering with commercial property giants and has declared himself against the demolition of council-owned estates, even when the goal is to eventually increase the number of affordable homes available, whether on the same site or nearby.

There are good reasons for this. Tony Blair’s first speech on becoming prime minister is 1997 was to Britain’s “forgotten people”, delivered at Southwark’s giant Aylesbury estate. Eighteen years later, it’s still being rebuilt. That said, Khan’s stance might not delight cash-strapped boroughs for which redevelopment seems a better bet than pouring endless millions into patching up poorly-constructed blocks that should never have been slung up in the first place. He should take that on board. But he’d be right to insist on boroughs fully involving estate residents in any form of regeneration programme from the start, recognising that demolition can end up doing more harm than good and that even the best-intentioned schemes can become mired in endless snags.

Khan isn’t at that point yet, but he isn’t a huge step from it. The conservation-minded Zac Goldsmith, who is almost certain to become the Conservative candidate, is already warning that development should not be imposed on local people against their will. This argument could strike a chord with Londoners across the board uneasy with the runaway pace of change in their neighbourhoods. Khan could be better placed to counter Goldsmith on this key theme than Jowell.

For middle income Londoners, including essential workers in private and public sectors alike, Khan leans a little more towards improving private rental provision and Jowell towards low cost home ownership through “rent to buy”. Informed opinion differs over the best way to help this “priced out” intermediate group. Khan’s London Living Rent model would entail his requiring rent levels of no more than one third of average incomes on newly built properties, presumably as a planning condition - a backdoor form of rent regulation, perhaps. It may be that, in practice, being choosy over intermediate “affordable” tenure types won’t always be an option. But with private renting growing fast in the capital, Khan’s approach might be the better long-term bet.

There’s a lot of crossover between the candidates on housing. Both Jowell and Khan would set up a not-for-profit lettings agency, an idea that Livingstone proposed (with Jowell’s collaboration) in 2012. Everyone wants to give bad landlords grief. Lammy’s comprehensive housing document wants rents linked to income percentages as Khan does (his ceiling would be 50%). On the other hand, shattering a huge taboo, Lammy argues for a review of greebelt designations, reasoning that quarries and car parks aren’t terribly leafy. It’s not an outrageous idea and limited greenbelt reclassifications can and do already occur.

He’s also proposed that the Greater London Authority issues housing bonds – an alternative way of raising money to borrowing from banks – to institutional investors to build homes for social rent. Livingstone once mooted the same thing. Abbott has argued for building around outlying stations, something London Councils also advocates. Khan should fully explore these options too. They could augment an approach to housing and broader planning policy that seeks the right accommodation between meeting the demand for development and growth and controlling the forms they take.

The candidates’ approaches to public transport fares are illuminating. Thomas would cut them by 10% in the first year, and argues that the suburbs have been picked on. Wolmar too thinks Londoners making longer journeys have been unfairly penalised and suggests correcting this within the context of a first year freeze. Jowell too has made a first year freeze commitment. Abbott and Khan have both committed to extending that to a full four year term, with Khan promising to include a first year bus fares cut - a nod to London’s lower income groups.

Where would this leave London’s transport finances? It’s a long-running debate. Lammy has been right to draw attention to TfL’s need for revenue to fund investment in more bus, trains and tube capacity. Only Thomas and Wolmar have dared to favour extending congestion charging, a desirable goal but difficult to sell to voters. That may explain why it’s only been called for by those two outsiders in the race. It’s reasonable to ask if Abbott and Khan are going too far. The answer probably lies in the deeper complexities of TfL’s budgets, but the overall case for holding down fares is sound. Risky? Maybe. But I’m prepared to cross my fingers and go with Khan. Wolmar has blazed the trail on green transport and environmental initiatives, notably on cycling and with his wish to pedestrianise Oxford Street. Abbott has given them high prominence too. They are matched in many ways by Jowell but the same is true of Khan.

What about policing? This large area of mayoral responsibility has received little attention during the campaign, despite there being plenty of scope for taking issue with the current mayor’s crime and policing plan. Lammy has produced a report on property crime and urged a constructive approach to solving gang problems. The insights he will have gained from being the MP for Tottenham would be valuable to him as mayor. Abbott has remarked, I’d guess astutely, that while police culture has modernised at the top end of the Met, that isn’t always the case further down the ranks. Jowell, working with Doreen Lawrence, has proposed a different approach to stop-and-search. Khan has made a high profile pledge to encourage greater ethnic diversity in the ranks of the Met. A fuller exposition of how he sees the police building trust with communities is set out by contributors to his Fabian Society publication, Our London. He has the advantage of having been an illustrious human rights lawyer. There hasn’t been a lot to go on, but Khan, with the arguable exception of Lammy, looks to the best equipped to address the weaknesses in London policing and enhance its strengths.

There’s much I haven’t covered here and I’ve stuck to things a mayor can actually do as opposed to things he or she could lobby central government for, not least a further decentralisation of powers. My scorecard doesn’t put Khan ahead on every count and he doesn’t come out top by all that much. Some of his bolder pledges require refinement and easy populism flaws a few. That might sound grudging, but it’s just a horrid journalist doing his job. If I were voting for Labour’s mayoral candidate - which I won’t be - I’d definitely make him my first choice.

David Lammy would probably be second on my list, partly because he’s sometimes broken rank in useful ways, partly because he’s put in so much work - he’s been eyeing the mayoral prize since at least 2009. As for the others, you decide. I’m sure I can’t. Who can fail to admire Christian Wolmar’s endeavour and the breadth he’s added to the debate? Gareth Thomas, late to the starting line and realistic about his chances, has dramatised the case for further devolution and championed Co-operative Party principles that the eventual winner should look at adopting. Diane Abbott has done what Diane Abbott does - waved the red flag with humour and without apology. Tessa Jowell, who’s sometimes been attacked unfairly, has put low pay, communitarian and women’s and family issues high on her agenda. Mayors have limited influence in these areas, but should use every ounce of it and more.

They all have things to recommend them. It’s Khan for me, though. Over to you.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dave Hill, for theguardian.com on Sunday 16th August 2015 11.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010