This morning Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, told The Guardian that the Labur Party should go back to the approach favoured by Tony Blair:
“We need to understand that Cameron’s government is as bad as John Major’s. If you compare and contrast what John Smith and Tony Blair did during that period, compared to now, that is the trajectory we need to be on if we want to win in 2020.”
Less than a year ago Khan’s message to the same newspaper was rather different:
“The one thing he won’t do is rubbish Miliband’s legacy. Too many of his colleagues are already doing that, he says, looking back on the Blair years “with rose-tinted glasses”.”
Of course, Khan’s initial challenge, a year ago, was to win the nomination to be the Labour candidate for the Mayoralty. That meant presenting himself as a Leftist alternative to the Blairite on offer, Baroness Jowell. Once selected, it was time for Khan to switch. So he quickly schmoozed the Mail on Sunday and City Am – stressing how pro-business and anti-Corbyn he is. He told The Spectator that it was “a good thing” that London had over 140 billionaires. While a year ago he complained that aspiration was “overused” he went on to use this theme himself, about himself, pretty constantly.
Those of us who happen to be Londoners will be interested to see the direction he takes now he has been elected. Will he shift back to the Left? Will the fears of a return to a Livingstonian era of extremists in senior well-paid posts at City Hall be realised? The initial signs are that they will not. Instead, so it is being briefed, technocrats such as Lord Adonis will be in the ascendency. If so, that is welcome.
However, it does not mean that the Goldsmith campaign was wrong to warn of the risks. Indeed it had a duty to do so. The claims that Khan had a record of condoning extremists were not “smears” – but solidly based in fact. Any suggestion that to challenge Khan over his associations was “anti Muslim” is outrageous. Conservatives (and some Labour figures such as Yvette Cooper) have asked equivalent questions about the poor judgment that Jeremy Corbyn has shown with some of his “friends”. Where the Goldsmith campaign struggled – as Paul argued this week – was to get across the positive messages. For instance, few would have been aware of Goldsmith’s support for the Create Streets agenda. The argument that new housing could and should be traditional and beautiful was certainly a difference from Boris Johnson – who is an enthusiast for ugly tower blocks. So much the better. Highlighting where a Mayoral candidate takes an independent approach is generally a plus.
Even if the Corbynite dystopia fails to materialise in the capital, it does not mean that the Khan Mayoralty won’t have the capacity to surprise. As a consummate opportunist we can almost rely on Khan to do so. For instance Khan used to support the third runway for Heathrow, then he announced he was against it. Might he change his mind again? I wouldn’t put it past him.
While he can be teased over these u-turns, Khan has proved himself a formidable politician. There was a good piece in the New Statesman about some of the strengths in his campaign. For a start they decided that “personality matters more than policy”. I’m afraid that’s true for a Mayoral contest – whether you like it or not. It might well be a different matter for General Elections, or Euro Elections, or other local elections. But for a Mayoral candidate, the voters look for a strong character - someone who swanks and swaggers, has a bit of showmanship, if you make a few gaffes so what? A good “back story”. Most of all “authenticity”…
Another thing the Khan campaign got right was getting started early. He was selected nearly a month before Zac Goldsmith which helped. But the Khan campaign also announced the key policy pledges – such as the fares freeze – early on and kept repeating them. As well as giving these messages time to sink in, it also gave a sense of energy and momentum. Having thus gained an early poll lead it meant it was easier to dodge the questions about extremist links by saying they were a “desperate” response by Goldsmith to being behind in the polls.
What was also impressive was that Khan was able to get away with all this, while keeping the Labour Party united behind his campaign. He attacked the Mansion Tax and the 50p top rate of Income Tax – but still retained the enthusiastic backing of Ed Miliband. Khan denounced Corbyn, but never went so far as to provoke return fire. The Labour moderates were ferociously indulgent towards Khan over the extremist links – even as the disclosures became ever more extensive.
So Khan certainly showed the determination to win. But will the Labour Party follow his approach? I doubt it. They were willing to rally round Khan because in London there was always going to be an excellent prospect of electoral success. Many suspect that even if Labour do change their Leader they will lose the next General Election anyway. So why not go down to defeat with Corbyn - at least that gives Labour Party members the satisfaction of campaigning for someone whose views most of them agree with.