London's mayor needs to raise his voice about the city's future

Sadiq Khan is a formidable politician, but could fall to a challenger with a fresh vision for Britain's international hub

Muslims including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, centre, and members of other faiths gather in Trafalgar Square for an open iftar event on April 20. Mr Khan will stand for re-election next year. Getty
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London’s long-serving mayor, Sadiq Khan, experienced the ups and downs of politics last week in what could be a critical point in the electoral cycle. He was able to enjoy a full-throated attack on his newly minted Conservative rival for the mayoral election in 2024, but he then was blamed when the Labour Party failed to win the Uxbridge by-election.

It was a week that served to remind all that the mayor of this global city has, at best, a patchy record, one that could be exploited by a challenger with a fresh vision for Britain’s international hub. Yet re-election in 2024 to an unprecedented third term in the post looks straightforward for Mr Khan despite the scare Labour suffered with an upset hold for the Conservatives in outer London’s Uxbridge.

Mr Khan’s signature initiative – a “clean up the air” push with the so-called Ulez scheme that involves expanding a tax on polluting vehicles – is being blamed for Labour’s defeat in Uxbridge.

The choice of Susan Hall as the Tory candidate brings a veteran of local politics into the fray. Her “Safer with Susan” slogan gives a glimpse of how she hopes to appeal to voters. Despite her experience, she is lacking when under pressure, appearing unsettled by the softer questions such as “what is your worst trait”?

Labour’s early attack lines are simple and drawn from her own Twitter timeline. It highlighted her support for Liz Truss and Donald Trump as well as comments that tagged entire ethnic minorities.

The runes, then, are that the current mayor is a formidable politician who should not be troubled next year. Many Londoners would be content with this outcome. With a new biography out, Mr Khan tells the important story of his rise not only as the child of Muslim immigrant parents through the legal profession but also within the Labour Party’s factions.

His authenticity as a resident Londoner, who has, for example, been exposed to late-onset asthma from the preponderance of diesel vehicles in the capital, is well accepted.

Time spent at panels, such as the one organised by the London School of Economics, has granted the mayor a platform for his biography. It also allowed a Labour insider to sideswipe him for promoting his book, not win votes on Thursday.

What his CV is lacking is a sense of a city that’s kept its buzz, and that aspect of London’s future is the world’s business and cultural interest in the city.

As the rise of Boris Johnson showed, the London mayor’s job is one of national importance. It can also open up an international following. Both Mr Johnson and Ken Livingstone, the first mayor, captured global attention with favourite projects such as the London Eye and the bike rental scheme still known as Boris Bikes.

Without the surprise entry of a third-party candidate in next year’s mayoral election, there will be an absence of the futuristic in the forthcoming campaign. That is a great pity because London needs a shot in the arm from something novel.

How much better it would be if digital forces were brought to bear on the city’s government. What if City Hall could be rededicated to the idea that technology can transform how the UK is run? A leader who offered public goods such as digitally secure accessible services could light up London’s reputation.

A fizzier personality could provoke people into exploring how London could be better. This is a poisoned chalice if ever there was one, but after Brexit and the exhaustion of a decade-long property boom, standing up for ideas such as real digital citizenship could be the global boost London needs.

What Mr Khan's CV is lacking is a sense of a city that’s kept its buzz

The current City Hall is managerial rather than trailblazing. Take, for example, Mr Khan’s highest-profile international role. The mayor is a leader in the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a global platform that includes the likes of Toronto, Los Angeles, Cape Town and other large conurbations. The forum’s primary role is to put its stamp on responding to climate change, liveability and the 15-minute city.

In the kindest possible way, however, this does not put London out in front of the crowd but slips it into the herd. Offering leadership in the pack is not an alternative to the pursuit of a standout vision. This means questions about how London can, as it has always or often done, leapfrog the rest are set in the shade. What then happens to London setting the pace for the world?

The “us versus the rest” mentality has served the UK capital so well. Should not the others seek to emulate the trendsetter?

Now more than ever, London not only has its perpetual rivalry with Paris and New York. It is also in danger of failing to recognise the undoubted challenges of Dubai and Singapore. From a European perspective, the claims of Berlin cannot be discounted. What of New Delhi, Shanghai and Tokyo in a world of fragmentation?

The mayor need not be an avatar for London, but imposing its unique flair on how it becomes the digital city is a very different concept from what has gone before. The vision of the mayor needs to immediately be touchable and capable of unleashing opportunity at every corner. Residents need to spot it and order it. The world should be rushing to beat it.

That opportunity is what is missing as the 2024 mayoral campaign gets under way.

Published: July 24, 2023, 7:00 AM