As the European referendum campaign gains momentum, the London mayoral election has had to take a backseat in recent weeks when it comes to setting the news agenda. Tonight the mayoral candidates had a chance to turn this around as part of the BBC’s London’s Mayor debate. While Respect candidate George Galloway was left out of the line-up, the five main candidates — Zac Goldsmith, Sadiq Khan, Caroline Pidgeon, Sian Berry and Peter Whittle — joined Andrew Neil for the biggest debate of the campaign. With the election widely seen to be a two-horse race between Khan and Goldsmith, the pair dominated the evening as their campaign feuds bubbled to the surface.
The first topic on the agenda was security. Berry — the Green candidate — said that when it came to defending the city, the mayor’s ‘strongest weapon’ in all of this is leadership, rather than the police. While Labour’s Khan said that he would respond to terrorism threats by ‘encouraging integration’ and seeking ‘reassurance’ over the police precautions in place, Goldsmith managed to offer some figures to prop up his own plan of action. The Conservative candidate promised to keep police numbers at 32,000, over the next four years, as well as backing the police’s call for approval to double the number of response force task officers.
A student from Notting Hill then complained that her Muslim friends often felt uncomfortable in public when in Islamic dress. She asked the candidates how they could help tackle such prejudice in the city. At this point, Goldsmith appeared to think he was on a fashion panel rather than part of a political debate, insisting several times that he was ‘very relaxed’ about how Muslim women dress. After the student reminded him that her question was to do with prejudice, the Conservative MP said that he would stamp down on hate crime. Neil asked if this was sincere given that Yvette Cooper had recently accused him of running a racist campaign. ‘My campaign has been overwhelmingly positive,’ Goldsmith insisted, with a straight face. ‘No one in my campaign team has said Sadiq Khan is extreme — no one has suggested he is extreme.’ Sir Jimmy Goldsmith’s son then risked the wrath of the politically correct squad, as he blamed ‘nut jobs on Twitter’ for such suggestions (seemingly forgetting the Tory election leaflets which describe Khan as ‘radical and divisive’).
Khan didn’t get off scot-free either as he was left to defend his links to extremists. While he tried to put these down to his former career as a human rights lawyer, Neil went on to remind him of the platforms he had shared with figures like Suliman Gani outside of office hours:
AN: It wasn’t just your job as a lawyer for liberty that brought you into touch with unsavoury characters — lawyers often have to do that. You appeared on platforms with Suliman Gani, you appeared on a platform with him nine times. On at least one of these times you must have found out what he really believed in?
SK: There are lots of campaigns that I have been involved in as chair of Liberty, as a human rights lawyer, and as a…
AN: Do you regret appearing on platforms with people like that?
SK: I regret giving the impression I subscribe to their views and I’ve been quite clear I find their views abhorrent
The three other candidates appeared to tire of the attention given to the two frontrunners’s campaigns so far. Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat candidate, complained that there had been too much mud-slinging, as opposed to focussing on real issues. However, the candidates policies on ‘real issues’ were met with a muted response as the audience struggled to find a candidate worth getting excited about. Although Goldsmith put on a confident performance exerting more charm than Khan, he was on unpopular ground over TfL — conceding that it was likely fares would rise under him. Khan’s plan to freeze fares proved more popular — even though his Tory rival claims it will cost £1.9bn. Ukip’s Whittle offered a more drastic approach, promising to scrap HS2 as well as the garden bridge.
It was housing that proved to be the most revealing topic — though not for a reason any of the candidates would have hoped for. With both Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone only managing to build around 20,000 homes during their time as mayor, would these candidates fare any better if elected? While Whittle thinks the housing crisis will be solved by tough immigration laws, the other four candidates have pledged to build 50,000 homes each. Goldsmith wishes to build on Brownfield land, Khan would build on TfL land, Berry pledged cut out the developers and Pigeon said she would take the money from the Olympic games premium and use it to borrow.
After they had all offered their explanations of how they would do it, Neil asked the audience to raise their hand if they were convinced by any of the property pledges. Only one hand went up. Khan may still be leading in the polls, but in terms of a mayor the public can trust to deliver, the search is still on.