Does London deserve better than Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan?

Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan debated each other for the first time last night
Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan debated each other for the first time last night
Adam Bienkov By

Few would argue against the fact that over the past 16 years London has been led by two political heavyweights.

London's first mayor, Ken Livingstone, was a household name long before he even entered City Hall. As leader of the GLC, he served as a populist left-wing firebrand who regularly taunted Margaret Thatcher's government from the rooftop of County Hall, overlooking Parliament. When Thatcher abolished the GLC, 250,000 people gathered on the Southbank to mourn the council's departure. Later, Ken took on and beat the New Labour machine at the height of its powers. Once elected, he dramatically improved London's transport network and helped make London the great success story it has become.

His successor Boris Johnson was widely written off as a joke before he stood in 2008, yet he beat Ken not once, but twice. His achievements as mayor may be more limited, but he is an overwhelmingly popular figure who successfully fronted the London Olympics. As a result, when David Cameron steps down in a few years time, Johnson will stand a real chance of becoming prime minister.

Whatever you may think of them, Ken and Boris will be remembered long after most other politicians of their generation have been forgotten. The same cannot easily be said about their two most likely successors.

London mayoral candidates await the start of their first election hustings

Last night, the leading candidates took part in the first hustings of the 2016 London mayoral election. Most Londoners know little about the current favourite Sadiq Khan. Despite this, Khan has decided to stand on his record as an MP and former minister, in contrast to his opponent Zac Goldsmith, who has only ever been a backbench MP. Earlier this month, Khan released a fake CV for Goldsmith, which suggested the Conservative candidate was a "serial underachiever". Whatever you may think of that claim, it's not entirely clear that Khan fares much better in terms of London-based achievement. At the start of his campaign, Khan's biggest boast was that he had "pushed through Crossrail as transport minister". A significant achievement for London if true. Unfortunately it was later pointed out that Khan didn't even become transport minister until after Crossrail had passed through Parliament. He has since stopped making this claim. At last night's hustings he was instead reduced to boasting that he had "pushed through the business rates supplement bill". While not wanting to downplay the significance of this particular piece of legislation, it's hardly likely to get grateful Londoners rising up in their thousands.

The Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has a record which is similarly slight compared to his predecessors. Most closely associated with the campaign against Heathrow expansion, Zac promised in 2013 that he would resign as an MP and "certainly wouldn't stand as a Conservative" if his party backed Heathrow expansion. With the government now likely to back a third runway once the mayoral election is out of the way, Goldsmith has since withdrawn this pledge and now says he would continue to serve as a Tory mayor, even if the government forces through expansion. Although previously known as an independent backbencher, Zac is campaigning as the man who will work most closely with government and is regularly seen side-by-side with both David Cameron and Boris. For a man who once launched brave independent crusades against big business as a journalist, Goldsmith is rapidly becoming a standard establishment politician.

Labour's Sadiq Khan hammers out his message

Neither man disgraced themselves during last night's hustings, but neither set out a compelling reason for why they should be given the job either. Khan was the hungrier of the two. He talked at length about his humble background, comparing it by implication with the lavish background of his opponent. Repeatedly going on the attack against Goldsmith for backing a housing bill which defines "affordable housing" as costing £450,000, Khan was confident and hammered out his key messages in a way which will serve him well in his battle against Goldsmith.

But there was little in the way of original policies or ideas from Khan. He warned repeatedly that London was "at a crossroads" and needed to be put on "the right track". For somebody hoping to manage London's transport network, it's probably not helpful to be confusing rail and road metaphors, but in any case it's hardly a staggeringly original thought.

With identical phrasing, Zac Goldsmith also warned that London was "at a crossroads". It has become such a thoroughly worn-out metaphor now that most people don't bother to convert it into a concrete mental image, but there is something rather mad about the thought of a city of eight million people, waiting by some traffic lights. Later an audience member would comment that London was "moving East," presumably having already left the crossroads. I was half-minded to abandon the hustings and travel down the A2 to warn the people of Kent.

Zac Goldsmith setting out his case 

There is something quite donnish about Goldsmith's manner on stage. Often laid back to the point of coma, he spoke fluently but without any obvious passion about the problems facing London. At one point he went on a riff about "tech clusters," which presumably are a real thing, rather than a fictional form of breakfast cereal. But there was little evidence of a man who is fighting what is the biggest campaign of his life. Zac may still surprise us. Those who have seen him in action down in Richmond, where he turned a Liberal Democrat seat into a safe Tory seat, report that he can be a ruthless operator when he needs to be. He also has a highly effective campaign team behind him with van-loads of cash to spend on leaflets, newspaper advertisements and billboards. But if he does become mayor it will not be because he has a compelling vision for the city or its people. His 'action plan for London' released earlier this month was vague to the point of irrelevance, essentially amounting to a plan to make things slightly better for everybody, without saying exactly how.

Liberal Democrat's Caroline Pidgeon

The other candidates on the stage were significantly more interesting. The Liberal Democrat candidate Caroline Pidgeon is a seasoned London Assembly member, who has successfully scrutinised and held Boris to account on a whole range of issues over the past eight years. With a forensic understanding of London-wide issues, Pidgeon could easily step into the job tomorrow and hold her own during the monthly three-hour long marathon Mayor's Question Time sessions. Most of her opponents on stage last night would probably struggle.

Green party candidate Sian Berry

Pidgeon was joined by Sian Berry of the Greens. Berry, who stood previously in 2008, is an active and energetic campaigner in London politics. Some of the policies she has announced so far have proven controversial. Her proposal to close City Airport and use the land for housing, was repeatedly ridiculed by the moderator, Colin Stanbridge of the London Chamber of Commerce. Other proposals to launch a London renters' union have also been heavily criticised. But whatever you might think of those policies, unlike the two leading candidates, she is at least coming up with some new and interesting ideas for London.

Peter Whittle: dangerously left-wing by Ukip standards

Lastly we were joined by Peter Whittle of Ukip. Amazingly for a Ukip candidate, Whittle did not seem obviously unhinged and did a good job of trying to appeal to working class Labour voters. Only his comment about Low Emission Zones being a form of "social cleansing" was even vaguely controversial and he finished his closing statement by announcing that he is gay. By Ukip's standards, Whittle probably counts as a dangerous left-wing radical.

Interestingly some of Ukip's previously controversial policies now appear to have been adopted both by the Tories and Labour. Goldsmith insisted last night that he would prevent overseas buyers from snapping up new London housing, while Khan repeatedly said that Londoners would get "first dibs" on properties.

In fact when it comes to political ideology there was little to distinguish between the two leading candidates. Whereas nationally, Labour and the Tories are politically further apart than they have been for decades, in the London mayoral race there is little substantial difference between them as far as policy is concerned.

Because of this, the race is already descending into a row about personality rather than policy. On the one hand Khan has taunted Goldsmith for his wealthy background and "underachieving" while on the other hand the Tories accuse Khan of being "radical and divisive" and "Corbyn's man in London". At one point last night, the Conservatives tweeted a chart comparing the size of the two men's respective majorities. In a race that has already become dominated by macho posturing, this was a particularly telling moment.

The best line of the night came from Pidgeon. Commenting on the almost daily spats between Goldsmith and Khan, she told the audience that unlike her rivals she wants "to do something rather than just be something".

It was a good line because it nags at a growing suspicion that neither Khan nor Goldsmith really know what they want to do in the job. Later Khan would tell the audience he would be "the best mayor this city has ever seen". This may well turn out to be true, but as with Goldsmith, it's not really clear how or why this would be the case.

Of course it's still very early days. There are several months of campaigning and policy announcements to go and one of the two leading candidates could still offer up a compelling vision for London. But if Londoners are looking for an independent and maverick politician in the same vein as City Hall's current and former occupants, then it appears they're not likely to find it in either Sadiq or Zac.

Who's who? The candidates fighting to be London's mayor  


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