A month on, how mould-breaking does Sadiq Khan’s election as mayor of London feel?
Yes, it was a historic moment: the first time that a Muslim was elected as mayor of a western capital city. The message it sends to black and ethnic minority Londoners, and to Islamists who argue that there is no point in Muslims engaging in western democracy, is resonant. The New Statesman’s George Eaton was right to describe Sadiq Khan as “The anti-Trump [who] shows the politics of fear can be beaten.”
And amid generally lacklustre local election results for Labour the election of Khan – and a similar victory for Marvin Rees as Mayor of Bristol – were a vital lifeline for Jeremy Corbyn, helping to scotch talk of a leadership challenge.
But Khan’s victory is also a return to politics as usual. The 2016 mayoral election was in many ways just like every other mayoral election since 2004: a maverick Tory candidate (Steve Norris/Boris Johnson/Zac Goldsmith) is pitted against a left-leaning Labour candidate who has beaten off a challenge from centrist rivals (Tony Banks and Nicky Gavron in 2004, Oona King in 2012, Tessa Jowell in 2016). An acrimonious election campaign has been accompanied by accusations of dog-whistle messaging, name-calling and dirty tricks. He (the victorious candidate always has been a he since the post was created in 2000) distanced himself from his party’s leader, seeming happier to share platforms with members of other parties. And a newly-elected mayor has once again been accused of reneging on a key manifesto pledge within weeks of entering City Hall. In all these respects Sadiq Khan’s successful run for Mayor of London was identical to Ken’s and Boris’s.
The most significant things that posterity will remember this election for won’t be Khan’s religion or racial identity, or the nastiness of Zac Goldsmith’s campaign (which was pretty mild-mannered by American and European standards: he had not accused Khan of having extremist views, only of sharing platforms with those that do).
The three most significant things are a lot more mundane. First, the remarkable revival of Labour support in many suburbs that voted for Johnson in 2008 and 2012 but went for Khan this time, sometimes by a wide margin (see full results here). Second, the pathetic performance by minor parties: as I’ll argue later, the result shows that far from being in retreat, two-party politics is still thriving in London and by some yardsticks is strengthening. The third significant feature of Khan’s victory is under-reported and even more unglamorous: the sober wisdom of his appointments to key posts in City Hall since May 5th.
Firstly, let’s not underestimate the scale of Khan’s victory. He won not just by a whisker but by a country mile. In the first round Khan got 44.2% of first preference votes – the highest ever percentage vote in a London mayoral election – compared to 35% for Goldsmith. Once other candidates were eliminated the landslide got even bigger: 56.9% for Khan against 43.1% for Goldsmith.
And Khan didn’t just win in ethnically diverse inner London: He also did remarkably well in many wealthier, predominately white suburbs (compare the maps from 2012 and 2016 here). Take Blackheath Westcombe, one of the most marginal wards in London (which I represented as a Labour councillor from 2002 until 2014). This chunk of leafy SE3 is 70% white and above the London average in terms of income, property values and educational attainment (well over half the ward’s adult population have degrees). Blackheath Westcombe voted for Boris rather than Ken in both 2008 and 2012, by slim margins, but in 2016 Khan won it handsomely – getting 44% of first preference votes to Goldsmith’s 33% (a Labour margin of victory which I could only dream of at council elections). To those who thought at a Muslim Labour candidate could not beat a white Conservative in London’s wealthier suburbs, wards like Blackheath Westcombe delivered a loud raspberry on May 5th.
Khan has achieved a rare feat: he’s combined the skills of a political insider with the insurgency of an outsider, playing relentlessly on his background as the son of a bus driver who was raised in a council house. For once, the story that was spun was true: one of the few charges not laid at Khan’s door during the campaign was that he had exaggerated his humble origins.
Much commentary has focussed on his childhood and his career as a human rights lawyer before his election as MP for Tooting in 2005, but far too little on his role as a fixer – and Ed Miliband’s campaign manager in 2010 – since then. Khan has been a frontbencher for almost all his 11 years in parliament: a Minister of State for communities and later transport in 2008-2010, and after 2010 Shadow Secretary of State for transport and later justice. He also served as shadow minister for London from 2013 onwards, a vital conduit to Labour’s movers and shakers who can swing votes in London’s town halls and constituency parties.
Khan won not as an independent but as an unmistakeably Labour candidate. Khan may have distanced himself from Jeremy Corbyn (who was not mentioned in his campaign materials) but he did nothing to conceal his Labour identity.
The triumphant success, or near-success, of outsiders like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn – alongside the rise and rise of the Front National in France, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and the near victory of the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer in the Austrian presidential elections – have convinced too many in the media that the days of traditional centre-left and centre-right parties are numbered. Yet all these European countries have long traditions of both far-right and far-left parties doing well in elections, and the resurgence of the far left and far right could be seen as merely a return to the more fractured politics that all these countries had between the world wars – ominous, but hardly unprecedented.
As for Trump, Sanders and Corbyn, all three have achieved pre-eminence through established party structures – the Republican, Democratic and Labour parties respectively – so could just as easily be described as insiders as outsiders. So it is with Sadiq Kahn in London. Far from being an outsider, Khan is a classic party insider. And far from being a newcomer to politics, Khan has more years as an MP under his belt than Boris Johnson has.
His record as a frontbencher is mixed. His selection as Labour’s candidate said more about the tarnish that is still attached to his main rival Tessa Jowell – once a Blairite, always a Blairite – than it did about Khan himself. He’s widely credited for doing a good job with the justice brief, helping to encourage the reversal of some of the Tories’ planned legal aid cuts and their crazy plan to abolish the human rights act. But he also acquired a reputation as being all things to all people: in favour of Heathrow expansion one year, against it the next. When Khan was ambushed on live TV with revelations of bullying problems at Greenwich Council in 2013 he promised to ensure all concerns were fully investigated – but when I and other Labour councillors contacted him shortly thereafter, he merely passed our concerns back to the same party apparatchiks who had already kicked them into the long grass, and did so again. Khan’s a shrewd politician, but can appear a little too shrewd. Had he faced a more competent Tory opponent than Zac Goldsmith he could easily have become unstuck.
Secondly, let’s remember that the result shows that two-party politics is alive and kicking in London. Glib predictions that ‘two-party hegemony is dead’ were proved wrong in the 2015 election result (as I had predicted), and have been proved wrong again in London in 2016.
Just as in 2012, none of the minor parties’ candidates got more than 6% of first preference votes. Despite selecting a plausible candidate – Caroline Pidgeon (an Assembly Member since 2008 and a well-respected chair of its transport committee) – the Lib Dems got hardly any media coverage or traction in this campaign. In the end the Lib Dems only achieved 4.6% of first preferences, up only slightly on the 4.1% they achieved in 2012 (to put this in context, the Lib Dem candidate came third with 15.3% in 2004, and third again with 9.8% in 2008). This may be a psychologically passable result for the Liberals (they beat UKIP into fifth place by a percentage point), but it’s really just a dead cat bouncing. It’s certainly not a platform for revival in a city where they had seven MPs until a year ago (now they have just one).
Although the Greens will be chuffed to have come third again, as they did in 2012, their share of first preference votes – 5.8% – was only marginally higher than the 4.5% they got four years ago.
And a fillip in UKIP support – up from 2% in 2012 to 3.6% this year – isn’t much to be proud of. If UKIP can’t get more than 3.6% against the background noise of an EU referendum campaign they are probably finished in London long-term (in 2004 UKIP’s candidate – the boxing manager Frank Maloney, now Kellie Maloney – got 6.2% of first preference votes).
UKIP’s candidate this time, Peter Whittle, is something of an enigma. He’s a journalist who runs a neo-con think-tank, the New Culture Forum, and used to be a presenter on a conservative online TV channel, 18 Doughty Street. I had a brush with Peter Whittle in 2006 when he was a Tory council candidate standing against me in the ultra-marginal Blackheath Westcombe ward (a fertile proving ground for Tories: Liz Truss, now MP for South-West Norfolk and environment secretary, had been a losing candidate there in 2002).
Labour drew attention to an article Whittle had written a few months before in the Sunday Times, railing against immigration and entitled How my Neighbourhood was lost to the Multiculture. Whittle immediately instructed libel lawyers Carter Ruck, who accused Labour of labelling Whittle a racist (we hadn’t) and pressed Labour to pay his legal bill (we didn’t). The party did agree to stop distribution of a particular leaflet (which the lawyers said contained one questionable adjective) and we did issue a statement of clarification to the households who had already been delivered it. But the row soon blew over, the election went ahead, and as usual in this hyper-marginal ward the result was close: the Tories gained a seat but I defeated Peter Whittle and survived as the only Labour councillor.
Whittle defected from the Tories to UKIP a few years later and has been the party’s culture spokesman since 2014. He’s a clever, argumentative contrarian with firm views about Islam, immigration and multiculturalism (some of which I share). You would have expected such a candidate to have played a prominent role on the London stage in the 2016 mayoral campaign. But Whittle barely said a word about Sadiq Khan’s alleged links to Islamist extremists: instead it was the Tory Zac Goldsmith who trod alone on that thin ice. Whittle did say a lot about immigration during the campaign but he also said a lot about housing, the garden bridge, transport and parking – and hardly a word about his Labour opponent. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if UKIP had campaigned more vigorously against Khan (paradoxically the most likely outcome would have been a bigger spilt in the non-Labour vote and an even bigger margin of victory for Khan).
For once UKIP downplayed expectations and did not seek the limelight, preserving their energies for the EU referendum on June 23rd. And for once it was a Conservative candidate – and a self-confessed Tory moderniser at that – who campaigned hard on the risky territory of race, Islamic extremism and terror.
Further down the pecking order the much-hyped Women’s Equality Party got a creditable 2% of first preference votes, knocking the odious George Galloway into seventh place, just ahead of the equally odious Britain First candidate Paul Golding (already notorious for turning his back on Khan’s victory speech). Amid a referendum campaign’s constant chatter about immigration, its pleasing to see that the combined vote for far-Right candidates (Britain First and the BNP) was just 1.7%: a far cry from 2008 when the BNP got more than 5% of the London Assembly vote, putting Richard Barnbrook into City Hall as an Assembly Member (AM).
So far from a fracturing of the two-party hegemony, this election saw almost eight in ten Londoners (79.2%) cast their first preference votes for Zac or Sadiq, with the Greens, Lib Dems and UKIP far, far behind at 5.8%, 4.6% and 3.6% respectively. The 79% of first-preference votes for the two big parties is only slightly down on 2008 (80.2%) and 2012 (84%), and still way ahead of 2004, when the two parties got just 65.9% of first preference votes between them.
As for the people Khan has put into top jobs since his election, another old-fashioned tradition has been revived. For once an incoming mayor seems to have made appointments based on merit – not cronyism, tokenism or internal party politics.
Sadiq Khan’s appointments of Joanne McCartney as his statutory deputy mayor, Fiona Twycross as chair of the London fire and emergency planning authority, James Murray as deputy mayor for housing, Val Shawcross as deputy mayor for transport, and Sophie Linden as Deputy mayor for policing and crime are clever and wise, if boring, choices. None of them are mavericks or household names, but by opting instead for experience and competence Sadiq Khan may achieve more than either of his predecessors. Many of the top jobs have gone to women, not because of tokenism but because they are the best people for the job.
I don’t live in London anymore so did not have a ring-seat this time, but I’ve met several of these people. James Murray was first elected as a councillor in Islington in 2006 and quickly acquired a reputation for not suffering fools gladly – particularly not developers trying to avoid provision of affordable housing (read my account of his walk-out from a meeting with me and the Mount Pleasant developers here). He may look a bit like Scott Baio in Happy Days and may not be the most inspiring public speaker, but Murray’s a tough cookie and a shrewd appointment.
Likewise Sophie Linden (deputy mayor of Hackney, where she’s been a councillor since 2006). A former aide to David Blunkett and director of lobbyist Bell Pottinger, she’s one of those politicians for whom “Blairite special adviser” has been an epitaph, not a CV point (just as Tessa Jowell’s past as a cabinet minister under Blair killed off her mayoral hopes). Linden tried and failed to get selected as a parliamentary candidate in Leyton in 2010 and Hampstead and Kilburn in 2015 (in the meantime, she was briefly interested in the Greenwich and Woolwich seat where I used to live; when told it was a crowded field she wisely withdrew). Labour constituency parties like these don’t want to select Blairites as parliamentary candidates these days, and I’m glad Linden’s talent has been recognised. She’s clever, unshowy (as I lobbyist myself I once tapped her brains about a planning application in her ward and she gave nothing away) and she knows policing inside out.
Shawcross and McCartney are both experienced AMs who held their seats in 2004 against strong opposition from the Lib Dems and Tories respectively. Shawcross has a long pedigree – she became leader of Croydon council as long ago as 1997 -and has done well to avoid being seen as second choice (it’s an open secret that Khan wanted Andrew Adonis, but he has enough on his plate chairing the National Infrastructure Commission). Shawcross is widely admired by TFL mandarins, who are confident she has the nous to hunt down the £250m of savings her boss’s manifesto pledges require.
Likewise Fiona Twycross, an AM since 2012. I’ve only met her once, but she has spent years going round Labour party branches across London (she narrowly missed out to Helen Hayes in the Dulwich and West Norwood parliamentary selection in 2014), and deserves a top job after years of grafting. She’s not just a career politician: she’s held a number of senior roles at Diabetes UK.
Contrast these solid, technocratic appointments with some of the people who Ken and Boris appointed in their first terms. Ken’s transport boss Bob Kiley stepped down three years early in 2006 and later admitted to alcoholism. Ken’s race adviser Lee Jasper was forced to quit in 2008 after it emerged he had signed off grants to a charity run by his lover without declaring an interest. Both appointments had been questionable from the word go: Kiley, a former CIA operative and head of Boston’s transport system, had no prior experience of working in Britain and was provided with a £2.1m taxpayer-funded home in Belgravia; Jasper had been accused of helping to incite a riot in Brixton in 1995.
Boris was even more accident-prone: convicted fraudster Ian Clement (appointed as Deputy Mayor by Boris) and Ray Lewis (ditto), who was later found to have fabricated large chunks of his CV. Boris appointed Carphone Warehouse founder David Ross to the board of the 2012 London Olympics, only for him to stand down a few weeks later after admitting that he had forgotten to inform the rest of the Carphone Warehouse board he had used his shares as security for a multi-million pound loan. Likewise Boris’s “First Deputy Mayor”, Tim Parker, had to step down just three months after he was appointed, once he had realised quite how much responsibility Boris had delegated to him.
The media has reported that Boris’s biggest piece of advice to his successor was to make appointments carefully: advice that Sadiq seems to have heeded. Although there have been gripes about Khan allegedly breaking a manifesto pledge to freeze tube fares, his administration has so far been blissfully free of allegations of cronyism, corruption or incompetence. And so far none of his appointments have the kind of baggage that the Ken and Boris gravy trains carried.
Far from being a political earthquake, Sadiq Khan’s election could be seen as a return to business as usual. London is essentially a Labour city, and had it not been for Ken Livingstone’s lacklustre election campaigns in 2008 and 2012 a Conservative would probably never have won City Hall. Livingstone was past his sell-by date in 2008 and by 2012 his candidacy was a bad joke. For the first time since 2000 Labour has selected a sensible candidate rather than just anointed Livingstone, and has reaped the electoral benefits. Labour has shown how to win handsomely in a big, multicultural city: the harder challenge now is to start winning in middle England as well.