Dan Watkins stood as the Conservative candidate for Tooting in the by-election earlier this year and at the General Election last year.
Conference season is (finally) over. As always, there were many big claims during its course, but one that made me sit up and take notice was Sadiq Khan’s boast at the Labour Conference that he had made more difference in four months in power as London Mayor than the Labour Party had achieved in six years of opposition.
Now, we all know that Khan was making a thinly-veiled point to Corbyn and his supporters that politicians can only achieve their goals when they are in power, and to achieve that power they sometimes need to compromise. As a pragmatist myself, I would agree with this general sentiment. But I was surprised that the media didn’t subject Khan’s striking example to any scrutiny at all. So I dug a little deeper to see what difference we can say he has made to the lives of Londoners in his first few months, and whether his claim passes muster.
Khan’s two most radical policies – ones that really would make a difference for better or for worse – were on transport and affordable housing. He promised to freeze all fares for four years and that affordable housing ratios in new developments would be raised to 50 per cent. I was one of thousands of Conservative campaigners in the Mayoral battle who pointed out time and time again that these pledges were not deliverable. And sure enough, having secured victory, our new Mayor promptly dropped them.
On transport, Khan has only frozen some pay-as- you-go prices, not the more prevalent travelcard fares.
On affordable housing, he has not only watered down the 50 per cent promise to a long-term aspiration, but the developments he has approved have been nowhere near his target.
For example, having campaigned in the build-up to becoming Mayor against the redevelopment of the Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium, Khan recently approved the scheme despite having less than 10 per cent affordable homes. So in potentially his most radical policy areas, we have ended up with more of the same. Unless we measure revolution as the introduction of a Hopper ticket.
But what about Khan’s “unprecedented” study into the impact of foreign ownership on London’s housing market, announced to much fanfare last month? Well, it is hardly unprecedented when a very similar study was produced by Boris so long ago as… February 2016. (See Chapter 4 of London: The Global Powerhouse concerning “the impact of foreign ownership on housing”.)
Air quality is rightly a top priority for politicians to tackle, particularly in our polluted capital city, so could this be the stage for a big “difference”? Well, no – Khan has tinkered rather than transformed, consulting on whether to bring in Boris’s Ultra Low Emission Zone in 2019, a year earlier than planned. I suspect this is the minimum change that any Mayor would have brought in, not least environmentalist Zac Goldsmith, so while it is welcome, it hardly represents a move away from the status quo.
What about the style of his premiership, another key ingredient in the London Mayoral mix?
While campaigning to become Mayor, Khan regularly attacked Boris Johnson for seeking publicity via high profile trips and stunts, rather than rolling up his sleeves and working hard for Londoners at more mundane occasions. But yet again, there has been little change here, with Khan showing such a penchant for publicity that he may have even surpassed the mighty Boris (much to the chagrin of those accusing him of hypocrisy). Few would argue that his #LondonIsOpen campaign has not captured the imagination as much as Johnson’s various successes in gaining the world’s attention.
Taken together, most Londoners would conclude that our new Mayor has been more “continuity Boris” than “Citizen Smith”. And while Miliband and Corbyn have rarely impacted Britain’s course from opposition, they have at least achieved enough policy changes to surmount the difference Khan has made to London thus far.
Looking at Khan’s early record shows that his specific claim is wrong, and on occasion you can make more of a difference in opposition than in power (particularly if you define the comparison as starkly as he does). But as a Conservative campaigner in London, I find Khan represents something of a dichotomy – frustration that he promised things in his election campaign that he had no intention of delivering, but reassured that his efforts so far reflect a continuation of Johnson’s successful policies for London.