London’s next mayor needs to set a fast pace for the capital’s revival

Anne McElvoy
·4-min read
 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

A bonanza of elections awaits us this Thursday — an amalgam of two years’ worth of local, regional and mayoral polls, the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, plus the selection of police commissioners — and a by-election all on one bumper voting day. Watching the results flood in from the early hours of Friday onwards will remind us of the deathless 1970 Monty Python sketch of bewildering election-night patter: “A little pink pussycat has won Barrow-in-Furness — a gain from the Liberals.” Yet this is a truly massive allocation of power over everyday lives — the wiring of politics outside Westminster with some 5,000 council seats up for grabs and 13 “metro mayors” representing the devolution of power, led by the success of the London model.

A diverse panoply of elections reflects hopes that the fear-ridden days of coronavirus are fading as June reopening beckons. For that reason, the trends to look out for might be described as the three Rs — resilience, rethinking and revival as we peer into the post-Covid world.

For London, all three attributes will need to be in evidence if Sadiq Khan joins Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson as a two-term London mayor. Yes, that will be an achievement to be proud of.

But the second term is the legacy-defining one and so far, beyond (very creditable) clean-air policies and a vaguer green new deal, his impact looks like thin pickings. Re-establishing his priorities, bringing in new people and viewpoints from tech and business to the “Sadiq clique” and providing clearer leadership on the way through the pressing circumstances London faces as the pandemic subsides is the challenge for a second stay in City Hall.

The capital is pulsing back to life but needs swift and decisive support and a focused plan to make the best of its status as a metropolis that starts ahead of its continental rivals in Covid recovery.

Resilience is also required for Khan’s ideological rival, Boris Johnson, after miscalculations about how to foot the bill for domestic refurbishments. Certainly a story that has been unflattering in its connotations of high spending, influence peddling and sleaze has unnerved Tory MPs. No10 hopes the timely (for which read, carefully timed) announcement of plans to drop the one-metre distancing rule after June 21 will remind voters that the Government’s vaccination roll-out is paying off and that the rest is “trivia”.

That, Johnson says, is the “bounce-back” message at the heart of his bullish pitch to voters. If he wins the Hartlepool by-election he can claim the embarrassment was temporary (though a slew of inquiries and more juicy revelations from his arch frenemy Dominic Cummings mean there is more squirming ahead). A win for Labour, by contrast, would be a jaunty feather in Keir Starmer’s cap. This is also the first set of votes after a general election dominated by Brexit — which, depending on your view of leaving the EU — is either a “rethink” or a “recovery” issue and where Johnson can hope to shore up support in Red Wall seats, to the detriment of Labour.

That explains an attempt to pin down more exactly what “levelling up” will mean in practice. The latest No10 appointment of Neil O’Brien, a policy wonk who is now an MP, aims to put some flesh on a vague phrase in the months ahead. Far fewer voters now (around 18 per cent in a survey) worry about the UK’s relationship with the EU — down from a third a couple of years ago.

That doesn’t mean that the many trailing wires of Brexit have been de-muddled. But if, like Khan, you define yourself in terms of opposition to “Trump, Brexit and Boris”, it’s better to reflect that the first has been vanquished, the second is a done deal in voters’ minds and that fighting Johnson mano a mano is outside the grip of a mayor.

Crucially, Sadiq 2.0 has a key role in making the capital feel an inviting place when the present tempests give way to a splendid summer. His latest wheeze of a bid for London to again host the Olympics in 2036 looks to me like wishful thinking. His attention is needed on a tighter timeframe. To think big, cities and countries need to believe in their revival and set a pace to achieve it. It means a guarantee that Crossrail will open by the end of the year and a quick fix for the financial hole of Transport for London. From the Thames to Teesside, the winners this week will be those who re-think fastest and with the most agility to get there. The clock starts ticking on that score as soon as the polls close this week.

Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist