Khan and Burnham have succeeded where their national party has failed. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images

Can mayors save Labour? How Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham show the path back to power

Labour may have lost the last four national elections, but the party is in power in city halls across the country
March 5, 2020

After suffering its worst election defeat since the 1930s, Labour looks further from power than ever. It seems astonishing, then, to think there are still some Labour politicians actually running things.

In London, Manchester and Liverpool, Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are responsible for their regions as mayors, and—what’s more—are this spring running with high hopes of re-election. Meanwhile, Liam Byrne is challenging the Tory incumbent Andy Street in the West Midlands, while Dan Jarvis has at least two years left in Sheffield. All of them have created an identity distinct from the national party. On Khan’s campaign website Labour’s red rose is tucked away in a corner, and the slogan “Sadiq for London 2020” makes no mention of the party.

One former cabinet minister compares the election of Labour mayors to the “long march” to power by the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, a truer parallel exists closer to home. When Labour’s fortunes last fell this far 85 years ago (while the national party was led by another far-left pacifist leader, George Lansbury), the municipal leadership that it mustered was indispensable to keeping it alive.

In particular, Herbert Morrison used his position as head of London County Council to build public housing, pioneer an early green belt, and modernise trains and buses, creating the London Transport Board. This not only got the council re-elected (one poster boasted “Labour gets things done”) but also road-tested ideas such as the “Morrisonian board” to run nationalised industries that were invaluable to the post-war government in which Morrison would serve as deputy PM.

Given this precedent, the incoming Labour leader might wonder if they can distil a few lessons from the Khan playbook. But its rules are easier to read when it comes to broad political positioning than policy. Khan’s approach has been to differentiate himself sharply from Jeremy Corbyn. He has presented himself as “the most pro-business mayor the city has ever seen,” and told me in an interview last year: “I don’t think wealth is bad, not at all.”

Beyond that, the country’s first Muslim mayor appeared to symbolise a mood of tolerance after his 2016 triumph over a shameful “dog whistle” campaign by Zac Goldsmith, who branded him a “closet extremist.” He has been highly critical of Corbyn’s handling of anti-semitism.

What of his practical record? Boris Johnson had the new Routemaster bus, the cable car over the Thames and “Boris Bikes” (in fact a creation of his predecessor Ken Livingstone). Khan’s Ultra Low Emission Zone is less striking than Johnson’s now-abandoned Garden Bridge, although it is arguably making more of a difference to Londoners than anything the prime minister did as mayor. Tackling pollution has become a personal mission for Khan, having been diagnosed with adult-onset asthma six years ago, at the age of 43. Under his policy the drivers of older, more polluting vehicles are charged more to enter central London.

So far the results are impressive. Transport for London analysis suggests a fall of around a third in nitrogen dioxide emissions coming from roads in the area. Gary Fuller, an air pollution scientist at King’s College London, judges that in combination with cleaner buses, the zone is a “game-changer.” Khan, the bus driver’s son, has also introduced a new Hopper fare, and frozen the cost of tube and bus travel for four years.

Elsewhere, however, the mayor’s record is more mixed. “Lots of good PR, not so much delivery,” says one former minister. On crime the evidence is concerning. Since 2016, robbery has risen 73 per cent in London, homicide 34 per cent and knife crime 41 per cent, the highest on record. Khan’s opponents say he has done too little to stem spiralling street violence, and he was criticised for suggesting it could take 10 years to turn the problem around.

He is funding an extra 1,300 police officers, but insists the city will never “arrest” its way out of the crisis. Instead he has set up a violence reduction unit—based on a scheme in Glasgow—which brings together police, teachers, doctors and social workers. The focus is on the causes of crime, including poverty, mental illness and school exclusions. But it will take time to deliver results, and many policy levers—on education or health—are not in Khan’s hands.

Housing is the other tricky issue. Khan has promised to “fix the housing crisis” and build 116,000 affordable homes by 2022. But he has so far delivered just 22,061. Allies insist he is still on track, but the pace is going to have to pick up: City Hall’s own numbers suggest only 14,544 affordable homes—one-eighth of that 2022 target—were started in 2019. One Labour source says house-building across the board is “at best stagnant and at worst dwindling. Developers feel they’ve been driven out of London. Sadiq is better at politics than running things.”

A mayor is, however, more than the sum of policy achievements. He or she is a figurehead, and Khan has mostly managed to capture the mood of London during a difficult period that has included Grenfell, multiple terror attacks and Brexit. Where Johnson gave a bust of Pericles pride of place in his office in City Hall, Khan has a giant photograph of Muhammad Ali, and the walls are lined with artworks commissioned following the EU referendum. One poster is made up of street names in the capital—India Street, Brussels Road, Morocco Street—together with an extra sign bearing a slogan of reassurance after Brexit: “London Is Open.”

That message of pluralism resonates with Londoners, and it might also inspire Labour nationally to face the future, irrespective of Khan’s achievements in power.