There has scarcely been a UK election in recent years where the contest was not declared a referendum on something else — usually on Brexit, even though we have already had one of those.
Now it is London’s turn to have the myriad, complex issues facing the capital downgraded in favour of a leading candidate’s campaign priority. Labour’s Sadiq Khan, the current Mayor of London and the party’s candidate in the May 7 vote, this week announced that he is making the race “a referendum on rent controls”.
Mr Khan, elected in 2016 and now hoping for a second term, launched his campaign on Tuesday to no great fanfare. London is preoccupied with coronavirus — the regional media wanted to know why the mayor, responsible for a population of 9m, had not been invited to the national Cobra emergency committee meeting with ministers.
But this low-key start to the competition for one of the best jobs in British politics is now typical. Since the victory of maverick leftwinger Ken Livingstone against Tony Blair’s official Labour candidate in 2000’s inaugural contest, the London battle has been lacklustre.
A hustings last month at the London School of Economics, organised by the London Chamber of Commerce, saw both Mr Khan and Shaun Bailey, his official Conservative opponent, failing even to attend. They sent substitutes with patchy ability to answer policy questions. The audience was unimpressed. More such “safety first” no-shows, reminiscent of prime minister Boris Johnson’s media strategy in last year’s general election, are expected by their other opponents: the two front runners prefer head-to-heads. Polling puts the incumbent on 45 per cent support, a 20 point lead over Mr Bailey.
Tony Travers, the LSE professor who chaired the hustings, agrees it is savvy, if disappointing, for Mr Khan to avoid engaging on his record and the “oddly diffuse” range of mayoral responsibilities — he is in charge of Transport for London, which has serious deficits, and the Crossrail project is delayed. By avoiding or limiting hustings debates, Prof Travers ventures, he avoids accidental loss of vote share in an election where the preferential system makes it vital for candidates to attract second choice votes from a range of people: “the stakes are high.”
This strategy could also explain the rent controls centrepiece of Mr Khan’s campaign. The pledge is peculiar: such measures are not, in fact, open to him so he is essentially calling on central government to expand City Hall’s toolkit. “At some level he must be hoping that Johnson doesn’t give him the power,” argues Prof Travers, adding that the evidence on the efficacy of rent controls is mixed. “It would have implications for the scale of good private rental homes in London.”
The LSE audience was unimpressed with evasiveness from both main parties. Rory Stewart and Siobhan Benita, the independent former Conservative and the former independent now Liberal Democrat candidate, enjoyed a positive hearing. These sympathetic candidates could stymie each other; even rivals admire Mr Stewart’s fresh campaigning style and Ms Benita hopes to woo 750,000 EU citizens on London’s electoral roll.
But the biggest cheer of the night went to a postgraduate student in the audience for his probing questions about the surge in the murder rate — Kelvin Williams told me he wants to work in London politics and then at Westminster, “so that I can really delve into the issue of knife crime”.
This week saw the former mayors of South Bend, Indiana and New York City fail to make the cut in the US presidential race. But despite (or because of) his distaste for scrutiny, Mr Johnson successfully used two terms at City Hall as a route to the very top. Perhaps Mr Khan’s team are hoping to emulate that rise.
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