If policies alone decided Elections, Ken Livingstone would be romping home as the next London Mayor.
Instead he faces a photo finish with Tory Boris Johnson. ‘Look at Boris, isn’t he a laugh’ is no way to run one of the world’s five greatest cities. But his celebrity status only tells half the story: Johnson is a cunning and ambitious right wing Tory who is running an unremittingly negative campaign with such hugely powerful media support that even people on own Ken’s side start to believe some of the things that are said.
Ken has always had an extraordinary ability to define the policy needs of the moment. On fares, he saw that the need in the 1980s was to use spare capacity and get people back on the tube again; by 2000 the need was for massive investment in new services; and now in 2012 the need is to put money back into the pockets of struggling Londoners.
Similarly in housing. In his first Mayoralty, 2000-2008, Ken was not given significant housing powers until near the end, when he became responsible for housing strategy and was given considerable influence over the Homes and Communities Agency investment budget. But he realised from the start that housing was one of the great issues facing Londoners and set about using his general planning powers and the strength of his Leadership to create a pro-development and pro-affordable housing culture in London. Even the Olympic bid was turned into a housing development proposal. Recalcitrent developers and boroughs were pushed and pulled into place.
It didn’t always work, and the affordable housing numbers built up painfully slowly, but build up they did. By 2008 Ken had his planning and housing strategy in place and he had won the biggest affordable investment programme in London’s history from Gordon Brown.
Boris Johnson has been dining out on Ken’s 2008-11 housing programme ever since he was elected, taking credit for completing homes for which he had no responsibility. All the while he has been working to undermine the principles on which Ken’s programme was was based. Lags and lead-in times in housing are such that 2011-12 was the first year when housing development could be said to be the result of Johnson’s and Grant Shapps’ policies rather than Ken’s and Gordon Brown’s. And the result in the first 6 months of the year (the last available figures) was that the number of affordable housing starts in a city of millions was 56.
Ken’s Manifesto, published yesterday, contains housing policies that are again fit for the times. He will do everything in his power to get development, and affordable development in particular, moving again. He will do everything in his power to defend social tenants from an unprcedented attack. But his practical focus is on the reality of housing in London’s rapidly expanding private rented sector. Unable to afford to buy and unable to access social housing, millions of Londoners are now dependent on private renting and are angry at the poor value for money they receive, with many paying out over half their income on somewhere to live.
The practicality of the Manifesto is demonstrated by the proposal to set up a London-wide not-for-profit lettings agency. Livingstone’s boldness in terms of policy is shown by the fact that he is the first politician in many years that has dared to raise for debate the issue of rent control – and to undertake to campaign for a London Living Rent, mirroring the hugely successful campaign for a London Living Wage.
The last word goes to the Guardian’s London blogger Dave Hill:
Ken Livingstone’s programme for London is obliterating Boris Johnson’s in so many ways it’s almost embarrassing. I preferred Ken to Boris in 2008 too, but not by a massive margin. His vast policy superiority this time may turn out to be at its greatest in the area of housing.
London’s housing problems are not the sort that are best left to the market, which is the natural default position of the total Tory that Boris is. Housing policy is another compelling reason for Londoners to give one of their two mayoral votes to candidate Livingstone and neither to candidate Johnson.