Head out from the moorings on the Thames where I live – passing around the riverfront’s gated colonies and skirting the wharves, long since reanimated as desirable ‘resi’, on which my grandfather had his first job (‘A man’s job, at fourteen’) – and in a few minutes you reach a clutch of houses which might have been grafted from a garden city. These ‘cottages’ – in fact substantial terraces and semis – are set back from the road, with ample room for gardens, front and back, and surrounded by mature trees. At this time of year they are bathed in cherry blossom: there has been a cherry garden here since Pepys’s day, but the buildings and most of the planting were the doing of Bermondsey’s mayor in the 1920s, Ada Salter, and her husband, Alfred, first a GP in the area and then its MP.
Dr Salter is remembered by a sculpture near the riverfront, Ada in the name of a garden and an initiative inspired by her insistence on the right of all to green space. As so often when left-wingers are memorialised, all mention of their politics is tacitly omitted. Were they living today, the Salters would be disowned by the faction currently in charge of the Labour Party. Ada Salter refused to fly the Union Jack from the town hall, preferring a red flag blazoned with local emblems; Alfred declared they were ‘out to abolish the working classes as such and create a classless society. That is what we mean by socialism.’ The Times declared him an extremist.
The afterlives of the Salters’ cottages tell a typical London story. The slum clearances which made room for them also produced an urgent need for mass housing. The Salters’ garden city never extended beyond a few streets. It was soon surrounded by low-rise brick-built flats – still green and spacious – and, later, rather less distinguished towers. The cottages themselves rapidly fell out of public hands after Thatcher introduced the right to buy, and now take pride of place in a conservation area; built using public money and labour paid at union rates, today they are worth about £800,000 each. You can rent one of them on Airbnb.
The Salters occupy just a couple of pages in Owen Hatherley’s Red Metropolis, a small part in the story of the early, heterogeneous and fractious London left. They are folded rapidly into the story of the London County Council, run by a zealous Labour Party that was accused at the time of wanting to ‘build the Tories out of London’. Its housing programme, the legacy of which is still evident across the city, demonstrates the vast scope that exists for an ambitious municipal politics. London has been governed most often and, Hatherley argues, most effectively from the left: the tradition of social democracy – in pioneering socialised medicine as in building housing which, at its best, rivalled anything in Red Vienna – is, he believes, in urgent need of rediscovery.
Red Metropolis, a book about London, is also a book about political defeat. Writing after the collapse of Corbynism, Hatherley’s interest in the LCC and its successor, the Greater London Council, is presumably sharpened by their successes in the wake of national disasters for Labour. He speaks up for the metropolis against a national government that is openly contemptuous of it, but also speaks out against the way the city is caricatured by some on the British left, who sometimes treat it as if it were six hundred square miles of South Kensington. He is in no doubt that London’s agglomeration of wealth, power and status is damaging to the rest of the country, but makes clear that this is just as damaging to Londoners. The ‘concentration of all English politics in London has meant the disappearance of London politics’, he writes, eclipsed by Westminster’s dubious glamour and aided by London’s byzantine accretions of government bodies at borough and city level, with its only newspaper, the Evening Standard, little more than a propaganda sheet owned by an oligarch and until recently edited by the former chancellor of the ruling party (and now by the sister-in-law of a former prime minister).
Henry Mayhew, the mid-Victorian journalist who produced the extraordinary, enormous survey London Labour and the London Poor, wrote best about the city when he could see it from a height. Gazing across London from Hampstead he described a gothic city, skeins of gaslight reflected in the phosphor of the smog, ‘a vast bricken multitude, a strange incongruous chaos of wealth and want – of ambition and despair – of the brightest charity and the darkest crime, where there are more houses and more houseless, where there is more feasting and more starvation, than on any other spot on earth’. Living in such a city requires a carefully cultivated blindness. When Mayhew began to write the lives and stories of London’s poor, an astonished Thackeray realised that these lives were happening just outside his front door: ‘We had to go but a hundred yards off and see for ourselves, but we never did.’
It is one of London’s problems, not always recognised as such by its government, that it is the combined cultural, economic and administrative capital: its dominance has never been seriously challenged in the modern period, and England does not have bifurcated capitals, as the US, say, has with New York and DC. Its nearest comparators, Berlin and Paris, are in countries with better developed regional capitals and, respectively, a far more federalised national system and a much more geographically constrained government. London’s ‘strange incongruous chaos’ has at least prevented the de facto segregation on which Paris depends from taking hold. But the deleterious effects of the concentration of power in London are in plain view, from the asset inflation now foundational to the national economy, to the ever expanding nimbus of dormitory towns and their exhausted commuters, to the ‘brain drain’ of young graduates from the regions to the city – though there are certainly parts of England where parochial monotony and bigotry are the push to London’s pull.
The UK is economically more divided than Italy or post-reunification Germany; the inequality between its regions was the highest among the countries of the European Union it has just left. That there is regional inequality within London too is sometimes forgotten: Barking and Dagenham, Newham, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Islington are among the thirty most deprived local authorities in England, and London’s income inequality – especially sharp among older people – is the worst in the country. Its promotion to the status of ‘world city’ in the past twenty years has less to do with its diversity than with the opportunities it presents for property investments more stable than gold, and the suite of opaque, few-questions-asked wealth management operations in England’s last rotten borough, the City. For anyone simply trying to rent somewhere to live in London the feeling is less ‘trickle down’ than ‘pissed on from a height’.
Histories of London often tell a story of the gradual melding of Westminster’s feudal, juridical and administrative centre with the City’s mercantilist patchwork. (Culture happened somewhere between the two, or in the once disreputable tangle of Soho, the borderland between work and West London domesticity.) Hatherley argues that in the 20th century a third centre was created: a social-democratic archipelago stretching along the South Bank, its buildings reflecting the gradually shifting ambitions and priorities of the British left. County Hall, which housed the LCC and the GLC until it was abolished, is a grandiose Edwardian citadel opposite the Palace of Westminster. It contained seven miles of corridors, 28 restaurants and even a Masonic temple – which Ken Livingstone rapidly gave over to his women’s unit when he took over the leadership of the GLC in 1981. (The site is now a tourist-clogged nightmare, having been sold at less than its value to a Japanese leisure firm in the early 1990s.) As one heads east along the riverbank there is the aspirational postwar modernism of the South Bank Centre (the Royal Festival Hall remains one of the few spaces in Central London where it is possible to meet people without having to buy anything); then the grassroots co-operative regeneration project on Coin Street, beloved of the last GLC administration; the 1990s reanimation of the culture industry at the Globe and Tate Modern; and, ending this stretch, the current seat of London government just by Tower Bridge. The Greater London Authority is housed in a now tired-looking building designed by Norman Foster; it squats in a windswept plaza between the undistinguished hulks of corporate law firms and an accountant’s HQ. The zone is called MoreLondon, and is owned by Kuwait’s sovereign wealth fund, to which the GLA pays an extortionate rent. Like many Londoners forced out of their homes by spiralling rents, the GLA is set to move out of Central London sometime in the next year.
‘Parliament has always been nervous of creating a unified and powerful authority right on its doorstep,’ the GLC declared in a pamphlet issued in 1984. The eastward move along the South Bank is a sign of diminishing power as much as changing priorities. The attitude of national government to the London authority has from the start oscillated between indifference and antipathy. Government has often sought to use the borough system to weaken the hand of the London authority, for example by locating industry outside its regulatory borders or shielding it in special economic zones. Each new iteration of London government has had less scope and less power than its predecessor; when they have become too troublesome they have simply been abolished. It is usual to think of Thatcher’s spiteful abolition of the GLC in 1986 as an outgrowth of her personality, unlikely to be repeated, but the fact is that in any functional European democracy it would have been unconstitutional. It should serve as a reminder that the checks on a popular government with a substantial majority are very few.
It is all but sure that Sadiq Khan will be re-elected as London’s mayor on 6 May. This will not be an exciting election; the sole uncertainty is whether Khan will win in the first round or the second. Unexciting elections give political strategists sleepless nights. Will voters turn out when the outcome is already assured? Will the pandemic keep people away? Will they sort out their postal votes in time? None of this is likely to affect Khan’s chances: the polls currently put him an average of twenty points ahead of his nearest rival. But unexciting elections are not unproblematic: they encourage vanity and entitlement in victors, and leave key political questions unexamined. None of those questions is likely to be raised by the Conservative candidate, Shaun Bailey, whose only marks on the contest so far have been gaffes of varying crassness. Instead, the Tory campaign has preferred to crusade on the tabloid portrayal of the city as a criminal’s paradise, a place of stabbings and no-go zones.
It is true that ‘knife crime’ – a synthetic category – has risen steadily in recent years, as has Londoners’ fear of crime, though the increase began around the midpoint of Boris Johnson’s second term as mayor. Police data on knife crime with injury suggests a downward trend since 2017 but, that said, few doubt the seriousness of the issue. Khan’s response has been to stress central government cuts to police budgets, and the sales of police land his office has undertaken to staunch the loss of funds. The pivot to national government is one of Khan’s favoured rhetorical strategies: it frames the issue as a contest between mayor and prime minister, paints his competitors as political minnows, and suggests that the cause of London’s problems is exogenous. In this case he’s largely right, though the consensus is that the chief engine of knife crime is a change in the operation of the drug market in Britain, and that problem can’t be solved simply by filling police coffers. He might have gone further still, and asked whether coming of age in the post-austerity state has had some impact on the choices available to the generation of young men who are the victims and perpetrators of knife crime. Siân Berry, who is running as the Greens’ candidate in the mayoral election, commissions an annual report into London’s lost youth services. In 2020 it showed that £34 million has been lost from youth services budgets since 2011; 101 youth centres closed, 733 youth worker jobs gone. The mayor’s office has spent to fill some of the gap, but to Berry’s suggestion that he might go further, Khan’s only response was: ‘Wishful thinking.’
London’s perennial problems – its ecological crisis, of which its polluted and sometimes fatal air is one part, and its ongoing housing disaster – have now been added to by the pandemic. It is hard to gauge how many people have left the city – estimates of the net loss vary between 300,000 and 700,000 – and harder still to assess how many will return. We don’t know yet whether the rise in home working will stick, or how it will affect economic patterns and the use of space in the city. More predictable is the social disaster that will follow the lifting of government restrictions on evictions and, especially, the withdrawal of support for businesses this coming autumn. Combine this with the end of the Brexit transition period and it is unsurprising that Khan is talking about the possibility of mass unemployment. The difficulties do not end there. The black hole in Transport for London’s budget has become a political issue. Punitive conditions have been attached to the short-term bailout of TfL, and Johnson has declared – in a deliberate lie – that Khan has ‘bankrupted’ the service. In fact, the major cause of TfL’s woes is its reliance on passenger fares for 72 per cent of its funding, after a deal between George Osborne and Johnson, towards the end of his stint as mayor, slashed its central funding by £700 million. The equivalent networks in Paris and New York rely on fares for only 38 per cent of their funding. Crossrail’s delays and spiralling capital costs have also deprived TfL of passenger income. If a London mayor is to blame for TfL’s problems, it is not the one currently in office.
The use of TfL’s revenue crisis to impose national government policy on London is an instance of the other major problem that will face Khan in his second term: the anti-metropolitan tilt of an increasingly interventionist government. In March last year, the secretary for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick, wrote to Khan to say that he was, effectively, taking control of the London Plan, the policy document through which the mayor can wield significant power over the built environment. In his letter, Jenrick hinted that London leeches off the rest of the country, upbraided Khan for failing to take up the government’s ‘pro-development’ line, and concluded by taunting him over rent controls. (What Jenrick means by ‘pro-development’ was made evident when he overruled his own planning inspectors and a local authority after lobbying from pornographer turned property developer Richard Desmond. Desmond saved £45 million in community infrastructure costs; he then made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party.)
Perhaps we have become too inured to the behaviour of this government for its treatment of the mayor’s office to be the outrage it should be: the perfectly normal exercise of devolved power by an elected official overruled simply because it doesn’t conform to the government’s preferences. Why, then, have the office at all? Khan has twigged that the conflict is likely to deepen as the difficulty in ‘levelling up’ the rest of England makes levelling down a Labour-led London a tempting prospect – hence the stress he has been placing on our ‘anti-London government’. It is hard to imagine the government would want to push the TfL conflict all the way to a Section 114 order – a bankruptcy in all but name – with the system collapse and mass job loss that would entail. Yet when the government speaks publicly on the question, to the extent that it isn’t just to boost its damp squib of a candidate, it does sometimes sound as if the ground is being prepared for it. It isn’t inconceivable, either, that Thatcher’s abolition of the GLC would begin to look like an attractive precedent to a government locked in a damaging conflict with a popular mayor.
Even in normal times the mayor’s fiscal autonomy is extremely limited. But this can wear thin as an excuse for doing too little. An ambitious mayor would find plenty of ideas worth retrieving from the history of London municipalism Hatherley sets out in Red Metropolis. There is in the story he tells an implicit defence of the ideological breadth of the early left, and what went along with that was a general acceptance that society is shaped by competing interests. The Labour Party in London, like its Progressive predecessor, would often ‘make controversy the basis of its popularity’, and hadn’t yet been lumbered with the deadening dreams of a ‘partnership with business’. Poplarism – why should impoverished Poplar pay the same tax as wealthy Kensington? – became a conflict over whether and how far Labour councillors should defy the law. Such questions of distributional justice in London can only sharpen over the coming years.
Herbert Morrison, the spiritual father of the Labour right, who led the LCC in the 1930s, is an awkward figure in all this. Hatherley has not come to praise Morrison, but admits that the left’s loathing for him has sometimes led it to overlook his accomplishments. Even Paul Foot had to make concessions in his diatribe ‘Portrait of an Appalling Man’:
Patients in LCC hospitals were much better off under Labour; the blind and mentally ill got a much better deal; schools were improved; classes were smaller, teachers better paid; ‘a great change came over the LCC parks’ – more baths were built; more swimming pools, gymnasia, refreshment places, paddling pools, athletic grounds, bowling greens.
I take Hatherley’s argument to be that Morrison differs from his counterparts today in that his appetite for political control of the party was a prerequisite for achieving expansive goals, rather than an end in itself. Perhaps, too, there is a degree of appreciation for bureaucratic competence and ruthlessness after the debacle of the last few years. Morrison wasn’t always a conciliatory figure: faced with government deadlock over a replacement for the crumbling Waterloo Bridge, he simply ordered its demolition.
Hatherley’s interest in the GLC – the successor to the LCC, created to bring the suburbs into London government – is mostly in its last days. This is the most heavily mythologised period of London’s local government history, remembered on the left, he writes, as a kind of ‘social democratic Paris Commune’. Shortly after seizing the leadership, Ken Livingstone declared his GLC ‘the post-1968 generation in politics’: feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, interested in participatory planning, workers’ co-ops and ‘socialism from below’ rather than in Morrisonian public corporations. A continually updated sign on the roof of County Hall confronted Parliament, on the other side of the river, with the number of London’s unemployed. The building was thrown open to ‘punks and Rastas at one end’ and ‘parties of Bangladeshi old-age pensioners at the other – all of them uncowed by their august surroundings’. Nothing quite became the GLC in its life like the leaving of it, a years-long counter-demonstration to Thatcherite values; polling before Thatcher’s axe came down suggested that Labour would have won the next London elections in a landslide.
The GLC’s politics are especially salient given the bigotry that today masquerades as the ‘war on woke’. Livingstone’s GLC was the subject of endless tabloid scare stories about the ‘loony left’. Its Ethnic Minorities Unit was bombed by fascists in 1985. Its policies prompted the Mail campaign that led to the introduction of Section 28. (Thatcher’s authorised biographer, Charles Moore, suggested that her motive was her hatred of local government education policies, as if a legislative exercise in queer-bashing, which blighted the lives of gay children for a generation, were somehow excusable as a means to a worthy end.) In this respect, at least, the GLC has been vindicated: its values are now so mainstream that it’s hard to recall how controversial they once were.
Yet the panache of the GLC’s final years concealed an enduring problem. The early Labour Party, which shaped the LCC, was the political face of a coherent, organised labour movement that demanded representation. The radicals of the GLC took office at the height of the last truly significant episode of trade union conflict in Britain, and at the beginning of a long decomposition of traditional class identities. The GLC’s Popular Planning Unit, with its London Industrial Strategy and its model of co-operative workers’ ownership, was revered by Corbyn supporters, but they tended to overlook the question of whether the skilled technicians and union density on which the GLC’s plans depended still exist today, or the extent to which they could be conjured into existence from political office. The late Marxist urbanist Doreen Massey observed that at County Hall the old and new resistances – the miners and the movements – met for one brief and fertile moment; within months, both had been vanquished. The transformations in the nature of work and identity which at that time were only just becoming visible have now taken shape. It is often said that the Conservatives recognise the fluidity of their voting bloc, and that their electoral success rests on their ability to enlarge it and reward it in everything they do. Labour has always been more fractious and more sentimental. If a party of labour is to prosper in the 21st century, it will have to grasp that many people feel class division is most sharply expressed along the dividing lines of property ownership, rent and debt. The cities are a ‘heartland’ too.
There are fewer clear lessons to take from the first twenty years of the Greater London Authority. Established by Tony Blair in 2000 after fourteen years during which London had no city-wide government, it bears many of New Labour’s hallmarks, including an idiotic preference for the trappings of American administration. It concentrates all effective power, and there isn’t much of it, in the mayoral office; elected members of the Assembly have the power to amend or reject the mayor’s budget, but only by supermajority. Members’ scrutiny powers can be useful – some of the best work on housing in recent years has been done for Assembly reports – but their effect on the mayor is slight. (Johnson’s regular petulance, ignorance and recourse to deception over eight years of Mayor’s Questions doesn’t appear to have had any impact at all on his reputation.) Despite London’s size, the GLA has far fewer powers than any other devolved authority. Mayoral schemes are often frustrated by resistance from the boroughs, as anyone who has risked death cycling in Conservative-run parts of London knows. But the mayor does have the biggest and most effective bully pulpit in British politics, if he chooses to use it.
England’s directly elected mayoralties, for which London set the pattern, are among the few offices in British politics in which quixotic or anti-systemic candidates can succeed, especially if they have an extra-political or celebrity reputation. Two of London’s three mayors have drawn on such resources; outside London, contests have been won by a man in a monkey suit and by a member of the far-right English Democrats. Livingstone used his office relentlessly and effectively, especially with regard to transport, but he was scathing of its anti-democratic character, hobbled powers and the vapid Blair-Brown vision of the mayor as a hybrid impresario-manager. It was, he thought, ‘a bloody stupid idea’.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Livingstone that both the abolition of the GLC and the weakness of its reconstituted successor were a reaction to his zeal while in office, or that London’s inequalities accelerated in the GLC’s absence. He would no doubt say – rightly – that he did no more than was required, given the disaster of Thatcherism and the opportunity presented by County Hall. But the risks of overreach are present in Hatherley’s account from the beginning: in Poplarism, in Morrison’s determination to make London an example of responsible Labour government, and more generally in the intuition that radicalism may have had the support of those enjoying its fruits in London but dampened enthusiasm for the party beyond it. Without true constitutional protection, devolved authorities will always be vulnerable to the threat of abolition by central government – a powerful goad to conformity. Yet, given that 85 per cent of Londoners in a pre-election poll have said they support greater devolution, in the context of a seemingly immovable Tory government in England, the city appears to be ready for the fight.
It is startling, reading Hatherley’s account of the GLC and GLA, to learn how recently London’s housing crisis became manifest. The capture of housing powers by the boroughs, the decline in London’s population until the 1990s, and the comparative restraint in asset inflation until the post-1997 spike, had masked the problem. Hatherley’s chapter on the GLA is entitled ‘Faust in City Hall’, an allusion to the mayoral compact with the city’s property developers: that by imposing planning requirements, affordability quotas and mandated contributions to the public realm (a refurbished bus stop here, a parklet there), rampant property speculation might be turned to the public good. The point about Faust, of course, at least in his English version, isn’t just that the devils get him in the end but that the results of his conjuring are by turns disappointing, degrading or pathetic.
The rise above inflation in London house prices since the 1970s is 513 per cent. (It is 166 per cent in the rest of the UK.) That astonishing figure explains the insatiable hunger of property developers for new sites, and the ever meaner and more miserable units they squeeze onto them. It explains the growth in petty landlordism, as Londoners – or ex-Londoners – supplement stagnant wages and destroyed pensions, or simply fund more pleasant lifestyles, by means of the houses they inherit or the council stock they purchased (42 per cent of ex-council stock is privately let). It explains why, in the council estate regenerations conducted between 2005 and 2015, the number of private homes increased tenfold while eight thousand social housing units were lost; why semi-derelict office buildings in the suburbs are being ‘converted’ into squalid new slums; why tens of thousands of migrant and semi-destitute workers sleep in ‘beds in sheds’; why 250,000 households are on waiting lists for housing in London’s boroughs – and why councils keep seeking to meet even a small fraction of that need by selling their land bit by bit to developers. London in the 21st century has been a landlord’s paradise. The only thing ever to have made a dent in the city’s rental prices, and even then only briefly, was the crash of 2008.
Hatherley calls London’s property prices a ‘resource curse’ for its government. Every parcel of land sold into private hands further inflates the bubble, even if councils manage to wring an ‘affordable’ unit out of it, and the ratchet works only one way. To marvel that there is ‘still’ poverty alongside London’s vast wealth, Doreen Massey remarked in her verdict on Livingstone’s GLA, is to miss the point that the one comes about because of the other. London’s housing market is a machine for perpetuating this inequality. In the absence of global meltdown or a collective Maoist turn by London’s renters, politics remains the only remedy – but to make any progress would mean confronting the dependence of the UK economy on rentierism. What’s required, as Hatherley points out, is an end to the development of private housing on public land, a step no authority has yet dared to take – afraid of capital strikes by developers and the prospect of having no new housing at all. Meanwhile, decisions are made in favour of developers every day, at the expense of everyone who struggles to keep a foothold in the city. Any adequate solution to London’s housing problem will mean a deflation in prices, and that many of those who have been accustomed to winning in the housing market will lose. The political challenge is to ensure that the losses aren’t borne by tenants, or even by those seeking to supplement a meagre income by letting their flats. But losers there must be. The Salters would have understood that. Khan’s recent airing of the idea of rent control – if it is anything more than a campaign device – suggests that he is beginning to understand it too.
Both of Khan’s predecessors grasped that the mayor’s office gave them space to articulate a politics distinct from the party leader’s, and to turn that to their advantage. This is harder for Khan, whose politics closely resemble Keir Starmer’s brand of anxious soft-left managerialism. But representation matters. Khan is probably the only British politician who can talk convincingly about faith, and periodic bouts of poorly disguised tabloid racism have never affected his reputation in London. There is probably no one who doesn’t know that his father was a bus driver, or that he grew up in a council house – though, as Hatherley observes, in his early days in office he seemed to think this in itself constituted a housing policy. His background – which should be valued in a time of increasing elite capture of politics – was an advantage against Zac Goldsmith, his languid and entitled opponent in the 2016 contest.
In a social media campaign video for the upcoming election, Khan is challenged to list his achievements in sixty seconds. They include introducing the ‘hopper fare’ on London’s buses, establishing the ‘ultra-low emissions zone’ (ULEZ) in Central London, freezing some of TfL’s fares, ditching Johnson’s mendacious definition of ‘affordable’ housing – at 80 per cent of market value – and beginning the construction of ‘genuinely affordable’ housing instead. Some of this doesn’t quite measure up to the ambition of Khan’s original manifesto: the hopper fare is a real benefit to London’s poorest, but it was also long desired by campaigners and all non-Conservative politicians in London, and its recent realisation is largely the result of improved technology. Khan’s ‘genuinely affordable’ housing is certainly better than Johnson’s, but it rolls together social rent units with shared-ownership schemes – which might as well be called ‘marginally less unaffordable housing’. The centrepiece of Khan’s first manifesto, the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, has vanished, sabotaged by the boroughs.
Khan recognises that his constituents are deeply concerned about the climate crisis; he was among the first politicians to join the declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ in 2018. He has made good progress cleaning London’s toxic air, introducing zero-emission buses on the worst polluted routes, creating cycling infrastructure on TfL-owned roads, and imposing the ULEZ. It is perplexing, given all this, that his single largest capital expenditure will be on the construction of the £2 billion Silvertown Tunnel, a new Thames road tunnel with a dedicated lane for heavy goods vehicles, despite opposition from constituency MPs, local authorities and environmentalists. The carbon costs of the construction alone risk blowing City Hall’s 2030 neutrality targets, and – toll or otherwise – it is an iron law of urban planning that roadbuilding increases car use. Neither Khan nor his transport chief, Heidi Alexander, have ever made a convincing ecological defence of the project.
Khan’s 2021 manifesto reaches back to Labour’s 2017 programme, with its green pledges, housebuilding promises, interest in rent controls and support for borough landlord licensing (previous attempts have been squashed by Westminster). There are hints of a recognition that the post-pandemic landscape is likely to be defined by economic emergency, but his London Recovery Board has so far been slow to make its mark. No mayor in England has had an easy pandemic: the government has ridden roughshod over local autonomy, and hasn’t been shy in punishing Labour cities. It has also sought to humiliate Khan by excluding him from Cobra meetings. Yet his attitude has largely been, as Hatherley puts it, awkwardly conciliatory and as a result has pleased almost nobody. This will not suffice once the national emergency begins to recede. Khan has begun to summon the ‘spirit of ’45’ when speaking about the recovery, with its evocation of new, socially just institutions. Socialists are notorious for their love of policy, sometimes behaving as if policy proposals can substitute for political argument and vision, but it is easy to imagine the detail and vigour with which Livingstone in his prime would have seized this moment – and the arguments he would have relished having as he did so. It isn’t so easy with Khan. Hatherley’s judgment is that he has been timid on his own turf: happy to stand up to Trump, less so to annoy the Standard. Livingstone was able to exploit the political latitude that comes with the mayor’s office because he didn’t aspire to a national job. Is the same true of Khan?
London was not always red. From a national perspective, the most interesting feature of the London election is the story it will tell about the Conservative vote: parts of Tory suburbia are like fixed stars, but the prosperous liberal professionals who were willing to vote for an apparently liberal Tory in 2012 have been alienated by Brexit, and probably even more so by the Tories’ recent embrace of revanchism. In a national election this would usually spell rare good news for the Liberal Democrats, but in the London election it is likely to mean that Labour retains one-time Tory districts like Ealing and Hillingdon, or Merton and Wandsworth. It is even possible that the 2014 switch in administration in Hammersmith and Fulham presages a change in West Central.
Khan’s timidity in office, his ambiguities, and his eagerness to disown the leader most of his constituents voted for – I wonder if he still thinks Britain ‘got it right’ in 2019, as he told a Sunday Times interviewer – might give a young left-wing voter pause. Assured that he will win, maybe some will pick the Green candidate as their first preference for mayor, and split the ticket in their votes for Assembly candidates. This would send a message to Khan, and it would also serve as a protest against a government determined to do away with the supplementary vote system – which allows voters to express their preferences more exactly without risking success for a candidate they dislike – because they believe it would shore up Conservative chances in similar contests outside London.
To explain the attraction of the Labour left for voters in cities – especially London – and the indifference its programme meets outside them, Hatherley suggests that the very proximity to wealth, the sheer speed and scale of the city’s constant transformation in the interests of capital, makes grand plans seem more plausible. On this basis he proposes a municipal politics which, drawing on its predecessors, would make London a testbed and laboratory for the rest of the country. Some of his suggestions – for instance, that London must stop growing, and seek to give away some of its accumulated power – may strike Londoners as provocative, but this is one of the few serious efforts at historically informed strategic thinking we have seen from the post-2019 left.
If the GLC was ‘the post-1968 generation in power’, what might the politics of the post-2008 generation in power look like? Harder nosed, perhaps, greener, less sceptical of big nationalisations than that earlier generation, less liable to take the welfare state for granted. But engagement with politics of any kind is not a given; people under the age of thirty have never seen a Labour Party they voted for take power, and any enthusiasm young people on the left may have felt over the past few years has been the object of ridicule and contempt from the press and implacable hostility from the party machine. The hope is that an increasingly fraught struggle between a mayor capable of inspiring and drawing from their support and a national government determined to bring the city down will reignite their passion and even propel some of them to office. Or – disturbing possibility – it may turn out that the politics of the post-2008 generation never come to be realised at all.