London mayor election: Sadiq Khan eyes his legacy as he heads for third term

Polls suggest Labour mayor will win re-election despite mixed reviews and recent Gaza gaffe

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It was a rare misstep that caused London's mayor to apologise to Jewish leaders, after suggesting they had singled him out for criticism over his stance on the Israel-Gaza war because “I’m called Sadiq Khan”.

The 53-year-old ex-MP, who positions himself as a bridge-builder in Britain’s diverse capital, is on the brink of becoming its first three-term mayor after mostly steering clear of gaffes, scandal and political turmoil.

The son of Pakistani immigrants and the first Muslim leader of a western capital, Mr Khan is Labour’s candidate in a mayoral election on Thursday pitting him against Conservative rival Susan Hall and 12 long-shot challengers.

Polls show Londoners are likely to re-elect Mr Khan despite many being critical of his eight-year record in office.

Victory would stretch his rule into a second decade and he has his eyes on legacy projects such as making the River Thames safe enough to swim in within 10 years, mirroring an Olympic Games clean-up of the Seine in Paris.

His position is helped by the Conservative party’s deep unpopularity and by Ms Hall’s struggles to raise her profile.

Will Sadiq Khan win the London mayor election for a third time?

Will Sadiq Khan win the London mayor election for a third time?

Mr Khan has pounced on comments by his right-wing Tory rival – such as defending Donald Trump and not knowing the price of a bus fare – to paint her as out of touch with left-leaning Londoners.

In turn, Ms Hall has laid into the mayor’s record on knife crime and pledged to reverse a low-emission traffic policy that sparked a revolt in London suburbs last year.

A 14-year-old boy was stabbed near a Tube station two days before polling day in an incident Mr Khan called “devastating and appalling” as anger over violent crime resurfaced.

“Sadiq isn’t a hugely popular mayor in terms of his record. He’s seen to have a good record in terms of the things that don’t matter that much to Londoners,” Chris Hopkins of polling company Savanta told The National.

“He’s got a good record on equality and diversity and green spaces and things like that, but less so on the cost of living, on the economic side of things, on crime in particular, and those things do rank higher to Londoners.”

However, Ms Hall is “fighting a losing battle” against the tide of national politics and has not helped herself out during the campaign, while Mr Khan has proved capable of shoring up his core vote, Mr Hopkins said.

“That is going to be predominantly younger voters, it's going to be predominantly those from an ethnic minority background. In London, that just gives Susan Hall a smaller pool to fish in.”

Mr Khan has relatively few powers compared to big-spending US mayors. He runs much of the transport network, collects a portion of local taxes, and has some sway over the Metropolitan Police. But local services such as education, leisure and social care are mostly handled by London’s 32 boroughs.

In his campaign, Mr Khan stresses how he has used those powers to freeze Tube fares and provide money for school meals during a cost-of-living crisis. He also oversaw the opening of London’s Elizabeth line.

However, one of the mayor’s main roles is as a voice and cheerleader for London and its people, including on the global stage where he notably clashed with Mr Trump.

One of Mr Khan’s campaign messages is about “defending our diversity and uniting our communities” and he has tried to tread a careful line on the Israel-Gaza war amid tensions on London’s streets.

Tricky Gaza waters

Having kept his distance from Labour’s 2015 to 2020 leadership under Jeremy Corbyn, which was plagued by anti-Semitism allegations, he has condemned an “appalling rise” in both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hatred in recent months.

Mr Khan bucked the Labour line again last October by making an early call for a Middle East ceasefire, prompting a rebuke from Britain’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who said it would be irresponsible.

In an interview, Mr Khan suggested there was no such backlash against the mayor of Greater Manchester because “he’s not called Ahmed Burhani, he’s called Andy Burnham, whereas I’m called Sadiq Khan”.

Accused of calling the chief rabbi a bigot, Mr Khan apologised and said Mr Mirvis was a friend with whom he had “worked hard together to unite our city and celebrate our diversity”.

Ms Hall, for her part, has said police should use “more stick than carrot” in handling pro-Palestinian marches as she accuses Mr Khan of setting a “soft on crime” tone. She is promising 1,500 new police officers.

The modern London mayoralty was created in 2000. There were two terms of maverick left-winger Ken Livingstone, then two more of Boris Johnson, busily building an image as a loveable rogue. He left in 2016, his eyes on the bigger prize of Downing Street. That year Mr Khan defeated Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith to become mayor number three. In 2021 he won re-election against the little-known Shaun Bailey in a Covid-delayed race. He is now seeking an unprecedented third term.

Mr Khan has long been a favourite bogeyman for Conservatives but the acrimony worsened when he expanded an ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) to cover motorists in all of Greater London.

It sparked an angry backlash from drivers, even leading to Ulez cameras being vandalised in protest at £12.50 ($15.60) daily charges for some cars. Labour was ambushed over the issue at a west London by-election won by the Tories.

Mr Khan offered financial sweeteners after accepting there were “concerns” but he continues to stand by the Ulez expansion as he touts his green credentials.

His campaign literature speaks of “world-leading climate action” and cutting air pollution by half in central London. In April he revealed his eye-catching plan for swimming in the Thames within a decade.

“It just needs political will, and determination across the political spectrum to deliver real change,” he said.

Ms Hall says she will scrap the Ulez expansion “on day one” and support local councils who want to remove “unwanted low-traffic neighbourhoods”, reflecting a pro-motorist line in Downing Street.

A member of the London Assembly, Ms Hall is undoubtedly swimming against the political tides.

At the last general election, Labour won 49 out of 73 seats in London, with 48.1 per cent of the vote – and that was on the night of its worst national defeat since 1935.

It now holds a significant poll leads nationally and Mr Khan likes to talk about how he could work in tandem with a Labour government during his third term.

The polls suggest he will get his wish by defeating Ms Hall and the long list of rivals such as comedy candidate Count Binface.

“There is an element of the Labour vote that is perhaps in spite of Sadiq Khan, but then equally there’s going to be quite a large, perhaps ethnic minority vote that’s going to be because of Sadiq Khan,” Mr Hopkins said.

“I think we’d all be very, very shocked if there wasn’t a relatively straightforward win for Sadiq Khan when the results come in on Saturday.”

Updated: May 01, 2024, 2:59 PM