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London elections: fight for an anti-austerity GLA
Paula Mitchell, London Socialist Party
This is a longer version of the edited article printed in the Socialist.
Two weeks before the London mayoral election, David Cameron launched a desperate, racist, anti-Muslim attack on Labour candidate Sadiq Khan in parliament. Why the desperation? Because so shortly before election day, Khan was 20 points ahead of Tory Zac Goldsmith.
While there are no council elections in London this year, on 5 May Londoners will vote for the Greater London Authority (GLA): a directly-elected mayor, and 25 assembly members. There is the possibility that Labour could win an outright majority on the assembly for the first time.
The Tories are in a massive crisis. Riven by the EU referendum, they could split and fall from power within weeks. Failure in the London elections would be another blow.
Were the Corbynistas in London to fight for a bold anti-austerity approach, they could be a lightning rod to harness all the anger at austerity and at the Tories, to drive them out.
Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn, in another retreat in the face of the right-wing Blairites that infest the Labour Party, has not insisted on the London elections being fought on the policies that swept him to the leadership.
And rather than fight for those policies, Momentum in London has descended into cheerleading the #JezWeKhan election "Khanpaign".
The Socialist Party understands that big numbers of Londoners want to drive the Tories out of City Hall and will vote for Sadiq Khan to do that. But unfortunately, Sadiq Khan has made it clear, with such statements as: "I like the fact that London is home to 140 billionaires. I like the fact that there are 400,000 millionaires", that he is not intending to be an anti-austerity mayor who challenges the interests of the super-rich.
But Corbyn-supporters inside and outside the Labour Party could still fight for an anti-austerity, socialist programme for London. An anti-austerity GLA would be a powerful counter-force to the Tory government.
Sadiq Khan was elected Labour candidate for London mayor at the same time as Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour's leader. His win against Blairite Tessa Jowell was part of the 'Corbyn-surge'. Labour's membership in London grew faster than elsewhere after Corbyn's leadership victory, doubling to over 80,000.
General satisfaction polls for Corbyn are higher in London. Polls in December showed more people in London opposed the bombing of Syria than nationally. London was the eye of the storm of protests against pro-bombing Labour MPs like Stella Creasy in Walthamstow. Sadiq Khan voted against the bombing.
In the 2015 general election London bucked the national trend of Labour's defeat, with a swing to Labour of 3.4%. This trend has continued in council byelections, with Labour's vote share increasing by an average of 1.9% up to September and 2.3% since Corbyn became leader.
One of the factors in Labour's support in London is the ethnic diversity of London's population, with black and Asian communities still tending to vote Labour as less racist than the Tories. Another factor is that there is a layer of better-off workers and a 'liberal' middle class in London, including young working and middle class people moving to London for work, who despite being reasonably well-paid, struggle to get by.
Tory support in London has been hit by increasingly low paid, insecure employment and crippling living and housing costs. Many working class, middle class and young Londoners see the obscenity of vast wealth on their doorsteps every day, while they struggle to pay for a roof over their heads.
The price of homes on the route of the recent London marathon has more than tripled since 2000. The Observer on Sunday revealed that one 38 square-metre single bed studio apartment (the smallest size possible according to government standards) is up for sale for £562,000.
The average rent for a two-bed home is now over £2,200 a month. Half of the evictions of private renters in the country happen in London - and they have doubled in the last five years.
'Social cleansing' and gentrification means that tens of thousands of families have been forced out of inner London in the last five years - over 63,000 have been placed outside of their borough by Labour councils. In consequence the outer boroughs, once middle class strongholds, are now more ethnically diverse and poorer.
In this context, the Tories' attempts to smear Khan by linking him with Corbyn appear to be backfiring.
Vote Khan to support Corbyn?
But Sadiq Khan is no Corbynista, explicitly repeating: "I'm not Jeremy Corbyn's representative in London". He says he will be the capital's champion "often against my own party, rather than the patsy of the leadership of my party."
In March he appeared in the "hostile" section of a leaked list of Labour MPs compiled by Corbyn supporters.
Despite this, very many Corbyn supporters, anti-austerity and anti-war campaigners will vote for Khan in order to support Corbyn.
The reality is that win or lose, the result will be used by the right wing to attack Corbyn: if Khan wins it is despite Corbyn, if he loses it is because of Corbyn.
As Dave Hill said in the Guardian in February, if Sadiq Khan wins while Labour loses in Scotland and in councils, "that message would say that a Labour politician who is savvy, practical and paints a persuasive picture of beneficial change can win power from a left-of-centre platform no matter what muck Conservatives throw at him. Corbyn would not find comparisons flattering."
Sadiq Khan says: "I'm running for mayor because I want all Londoners to get the opportunities that our city gave to me and my family when I was growing up. A secure home you can afford, good jobs with decent pay, a modern and affordable transport system, an NHS that puts patients first, fantastic state schools and real action to reduce crime. I'll be a mayor for all Londoners."
Echoing an idea put forward by the Socialist party and TUSC (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition), he says he would be "dare I say it, London's shop steward".
But really it depends what kind of Londoner you are. Because in a letter to voters he also says: "I'll be the most pro-business mayor London has ever had... Business will always have a seat at the table when I'm mayor".
It is not possible to actually represent all those interests at the same time. Unless a clear programme is put forward that challenges big business and the super-rich, and a campaign mobilised in its defence, theirs will be the interests that win out.
For example, Khan's proposals to increase house-building to 80,000 a year (from the current 23,000), to give 'first dibs' to Londoners, and to prioritise key workers, will be popular.
But in reality he aims to do this by attracting big business investment, and has a target of only 50% being 'affordable'. He has refused to clarify what he sees as the role of council estates - thereby still allowing for demolition of estates with little chance of return for existing residents.
The promise of a London living rent will also be welcomed, but again, this is very limited. Khan proposes that rent will be based on a third of average local income, determined on a borough-by-borough basis.
Not only does this still price working class people out of boroughs where the rich also live, or where 'gentrification' has taken place, but a third of average income is still way too high. Nationally the average spent on housing costs is 21%, itself an increase from 17% in the last ten years.
The mayor controls a budget of £17 billion, plus an additional regional housing fund, and can use the same prudential borrowing system as councils.
The GLA could play a critical role in coordinating resistance to council cuts by the London boroughs, and could mount mass campaigns of trade unions and communities against schools cuts and forced academies, in defence of the NHS, and against the cuts to Transport for London.
An anti-austerity mayor and assembly could:
- Set £10 an hour as the London living wage for all ages
- Call an immediate halt to 'social cleansing' schemes and call on London councils to refuse to implement the Housing Bill
- Build houses and take over empty speculative property to provide 800,000 genuinely affordable homes, including council homes with secure lifetime tenancies
- Set a London rent cap and require councils to register private landlords and establish council-run borough letting agencies
- Re-open the ten closed fire stations and stop the proposed extra cuts of 13 engines
- Enforce a moratorium on NHS and adult social care cuts, closures and privatisations. Call on London's health trusts to refuse to implement Hunt's junior doctor contract
- Call an immediate halt to academies and free schools in London. Call on councils to refuse to pass on cuts to schools funding
- Re-open tube ticket offices and reinstate lost jobs. Instruct bus companies to immediately establish pay parity. Bring privatised London transport back in-house
- Tackle air pollution by investing in non-diesel public transport, establishing a grant for people to convert polluting cars, and bringing in a levy on businesses that drive freight through London. Cut fares. No fracking in London
- Establish a grant for London's young people in further and higher education
- Campaign against racism, 'Prevent' and the scapegoating of migrants and refugees
- Establish a London fund in place of the Independent Living Fund
- Defend the democratic right to peaceful protest in London, including Parliament Square
At the end of 2015 George Galloway was running third in the polls for London mayor. He is hoping to pick up an anti-austerity, anti-establishment vote among those who have no illusions in Sadiq Khan.
The Green Party would also hope to do well, standing more council candidates outside London than before and expecting to win seats. In 2012 Jenny Jones came third on 4.5%, in the context of a tightly fought race between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, and the Greens won two assembly seats.
However, Galloway is currently polling at less than half a percent, way behind Ukip (on 7% first preference votes), Greens (6%) and the Lib Dems (5%).
Things can change at the ballot box of course, including some people perhaps feeling less worried about a Tory win given the huge lead Khan now has. But at the moment it would seem that the 'Corbyn surge' is still primarily benefiting Khan.
The racist attacks on him, as a Muslim, will probably mean some London Muslims who might have turned to Galloway will now vote for Khan. Galloway has probably also been tainted by sharing a platform with Nigel Farage in Grassroots Out.