According to people at City Hall, Sadiq Khan writes some of his own press releases. I can believe it: they’ve certainly become a lot more excitable since he took over. I like to imagine the Mayor of London, late at night, combing the thesaurus for fresh superlatives to bugle his ‘unprecedented programme of far-reaching improvements’ for the taxi trade (allowing black cabs in more bus lanes) or his ‘bold package of measures’ to revive street markets (creating a London Markets Board and an interactive map). One release even panted that Khan had ‘personally scrutinised’ the New Year’s Eve fireworks display ‘to make the acclaimed event the most exciting yet’.
Language like this — the bold mayor, the German Democratic Republic, the powerful Commons paperclips committee — is normally taken to mean the exact opposite of what its user intends. Yet even though we are nearly halfway through Khan’s term, most people still accept him at face value. Few seem to have noticed that, outside the realm of the press release and the TV interview, he is underachieving badly.
I worked for Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, so perhaps I’m biased. But the figures aren’t biased. Before the election, Khan promised that his housing policy would ‘rival the NHS with its transformative effect on society’. He said he would ‘support housing associations… to ensure a minimum of 80,000 new homes a year’, more than in any year, save one, in London’s entire history.
Few expected Khan to keep such epoch-making promises. But we did expect him to do something. City Hall figures show, however, that in the first year of Khan’s term, London did not start building a single social rented home. By comparison, Johnson started 7,439 homes for social rent in his first year as mayor and 1,687 in the first year of his second term, after the economic crash. With two years of Khan’s term nearly now gone, the great social justice warrior has finally managed to begin (drum roll) 1,263 social rent homes, many of a type he once denounced as ‘not genuinely affordable’.
The same pattern applies in most other mayoral policy areas: big promises, followed by things going inexorably backwards. Crime is up by 12 per cent since he took office, with a far bigger rise in murders. February and March were the first months in history when London homicides exceeded New York’s. On transport, Khan claimed that he could ‘both freeze fares and invest record amounts modernising London’s transport infrastructure’. Fares have, in fact, only been frozen for some travellers. But the impact (together with a cut in government grant) has still left Transport for London so short of money that it can no longer pay the interest on its debts.
As it said in a leaked memo: ‘If this was our household budget, this would be the same as not having enough money left over from our salary each month to pay our interest--only mortgage or get our car serviced.’ TfL has now been forced to suspend routine road maintenance, stop many investment programmes, and make serious cuts to the bus network. Even the first phase of this has reduced services by 7 per cent overall — and on some routes by 50 per cent.
For the first time in 25 years, public transport use is falling, with tangible impacts on congestion. The drop might, of course, have been greater without the fares freeze: but in London it is the quantity and quality of service, more than its price, which has driven usage. And each year, the revenue foregone, and the damage to services, will compound.
Khan’s promise of both real-terms fare cuts and increased investment exemplifies his greatest weakness — his wish to have it both ways, or more brutally his long-standing inability to make decisions. Depending on how strictly you count it, for instance, Khan as mayor has voiced between two and six different ‘no. 1 priorities’. As an MP, he once went straight from voting in parliament for post office closures to a public meeting where he protested against post office closures. He wobbled interminably over Boris’s Garden Bridge, reversing his position five times. He was against Heathrow expansion, then in favour, and is now against it once more — and so the list goes on.
In politics, making decisions which make a difference — building homes, raising fares to invest, taking roadspace for cycle lanes — is contested and risky. So it’s easy to see why Khan prefers to act like the shadow cabinet member he once was, using the job mainly as a platform to build his personal profile and attack the government. It wasn’t me, Miss, it was the Tories!
But Khan is not in opposition. He is in office, the holder of substantial powers and responsibilities, and there is a limit to how long he can carry on blaming all London’s problems on others. Nor is it in Londoners’ interests to attack the government constantly when it gives you most of the money you spend. Perhaps Khan is becalmed because he saw the mayoralty mainly as a stepping stone to his actual goal of the Labour leadership. Now that option has receded, his lack of purpose at City Hall has become clearer.
Yet for the moment, at least, people seem very happy with Khan. His approval ratings are high. Those who watch him closely — most of his Labour colleagues in councils and the London Assembly, a handful of journalists — know he’s not doing well. But why hasn’t the public noticed?
For one, the mayor of London is under less political and media scrutiny than any other major leader. London’s paper, the Evening Standard, does a bit but not enough. The national press sees him largely as local news. Most people’s knowledge of Khan is limited to favourable snapshots: lantern-jawed TV clips after terror attacks, or encounters with the kind of enemies anyone would kill for. Every ding-dong with Donald Trump, Chris Grayling or a far-right turniphead disrupting one of his speeches is political gold for him.
Khan also benefits from two important hopes held by most decent people: that Britain’s multi-faith society should succeed, and that Labour should be rescued from the claws of the hard left. At the same time it’s assumed he speaks for Londoners on Brexit — Londoners who are happy only because the regressive impacts of his policies haven’t bitten yet (the bus cuts, for instance).
But it’s also because the Tories are so useless. Khan’s underperformance — along with the gift that is Momentum — could help them avoid at least total disaster in May’s London borough elections. Why aren’t they jumping on it?