London is Open no longer rings true — the Mayor needs to find a new vision – Evening Standard



Elections are, in essence, a contest between competing visions of the future. Fortunately for Londoners, the Conservative candidate certainly has one. Unfortunately, the future he envisions is the fictional San Francisco depicted in the 1982 science-fiction film Blade Runner, with workers facing random tests at their offices and the names of train stations auctioned off to the highest bidder. The vision of Sadiq Khan, who barring the biggest shock in British political history will be re-elected as Mayor in May, is not science fiction, but regrettably, it is historical: a world in which London’s nation and world-leading industries have not been crippled, bankrupted or shut by coronavirus.

The Mayor’s political success — as with Boris Johnson before him — is in appealing to a rich seam of political chauvinism, to the (palpably correct) view that this is the greatest city on earth, and that its greatness lies in its openness, innovation and diversity. His ever-present tagline of London is Open might have all the political subtlety of a brick, but it is no less effective for all that.

The problem, of course, is that London isn’t open. It’s world-beating theatres, concert halls — which attract not only audiences from around the world but the greatest actors and musicians in the English-speaking world — have been forced to close their doors, and might ultimately be forced to keep them that way. Its public transport system — which, not only thanks to its quality but also due to its innovative governance structure is the envy of many cities around the planet — faces a funding crunch the like of which has never been seen. And if the shift away from working in offices proves to be permanent, that will create many winners around the country, with people having far greater freedom over where they live and work. But it will, at least in the medium term, be a traumatic and destabilising moment for our great cities and for London in particular.

Having been outflanked by Rory Stewart, the former independent candidate for the mayoralty, who alone among high-profile British politicians called for the United Kingdom to go into lockdown long before it was fashionable, Khan has become one of the loudest advocates for a health-first approach to tackling the pandemic. That’s the right call, because there is no way past the economic crisis without tackling the health crisis: only getting to a point where the NHS and test-and-trace infrastructure can safely test, trace and isolate new cases will allow the economy to recover fully. But it comes at a major cost for London.

There is no way past the economic crisis without tackling the health crisis but it comes at a major cost

Even if a vaccine — or, more likely, a leap forward in palliative treatment — means that we can bring the era of social distancing to a rapid end, the massive debts that London has incurred thanks to the cost of lockdown have changed our relationship with the rest of the country, at least for the short-term. To recover, London will no longer be a net contributor to the nation’s coffers: its finances will need at the least a bailout, perhaps a prolonged period of subsidy.

That suits this Downing Street down to the ground. Their vision of “local government” means “local to Downing Street”: their preferred method of governing is centralisation, whether directly or indirectly. Their first preference, as they showed in their first bailout of the capital, will be to use any attempt to refinance Transport for London as a way to reduce the Mayor’s autonomy: a regression to the failed experiment of the Nineties, when London became the only major city in the world without its own city-wide devolved government, and a far cry from David Cameron’s sensible decision to expand elected mayors to England’s other great cities.

What is Khan’s vision for London both now and for the future? To date what we have heard is lock down and wear masks. He has not tackled the economic carnage that is hitting London and he is showing little support for business. Khan’s great political skill is his ability to make Londoners feel good about themselves and the city they live in. But without a vision of the future climbing out of this pandemic he is failing. Downing Street’s private belief is that, beyond stroking the egos of the capital’s voters, there is nothing that the Mayor can do or say that a small centralised cabal of people in Whitehall can’t do better. If City Hall can’t offer more than lock down, wear a mask, then he may end up discovering that the future he is presiding over is one without a mayor. Khan needs to have a plan for what he would do differently from Whitehall and stick up for his voters against the government. Simply railing against interference from Westminster is not working.

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