Paul Finch Letter From London: 28 April

Decisions and policies require judgement, not just information

First you get information; context for that information may produce knowledge; judgement applied to it may result in wisdom. We hope to get the latter from politicians; if we do it is evidence of statesmanship.

The forthcoming mayoral election in London does not present a clear-cut choice between the main rival candidates. Sadiq Khan is my decent local MP, and on the basis of his general conduct and comments to date I will almost certainly vote for him. It is true that he has kept some worrying (occasional) company on various platforms in recent years, but he has taken courageous risks by condemning violence from the corrupted sector of the Islamic community.

His cynical nomination of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader may yet come back to haunt him more than it already has done, but he was scarcely to know that the other candidates would put up such a sorry show. Personally I don’t mind a bit of cynicism in an aspiring leader. It suggests they are in touch with reality.

Talking of which, the only thing where he has surely made a mistake is his campaign promise to freeze fares for public transport. Ken Livingstone actually did this years ago when he was leader of the Greater London Council and it did not end well. The public no more expects fares to be frozen that it expects anything else to be frozen. What it is interested in is the quality and reliability of the service, which will not improve by a self-inflicted finance shortage.

In respect of his ideas on housing, condemned by some (like Lord Sugar) as financially unrealistic, I have much more sympathy. No Mayor has yet cracked the question of London housing supply, so Mr Khan’s proposition, to exploit Transport for London’s spare land to build homes which include a substantial proportion that are affordable, looks well worth considering.

We should bear in mind that under the skilful leadership of TFL’s director of commercial development, Graeme Craig, plans are already in place for a programme of exploitation, with a new team of expert property folk being lined up to make it happen. No doubt there will be a policy of long leasehold deals, not the freeholds the current Mayor is foolishly offering the market.

All these matters will be resolved, one hopes, as matters of judgement, not just contingent political decisions. That is how you create a city, not just randomised buildings, and there is merit in the idea of a chief architect for London, their task to leave the capital in a better condition at the end of their term than at the start.

In considering the choices for mayor, Mr Khan seems to have more fire in his belly than the surprisingly lacklustre Zac Goldsmith. He reminds me of someone who, if he ever travelled by bus, would try to tip the driver as he disembarked. Green enough, no doubt, and sound on the madness of Heathrow expansion, but not an inspiring candidate.

The current election is a generally duller affair than its predecessors. There is no Steve Norris, the best mayor London never had, to provide technical as well as political credibility. No Livingstone Firebrand, no Boris Force of Nature. An important election, nevertheless, whatever happens in that vote in June.

As in other matters, the task of the electorate is to exercise judgement. At the last general election, that judgement was as much about who would be punished as it was about who should take office. Voting for a mayor is a rather different matter –it is personalities and character, not just issues, which will determine the outcome.

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