The sentence “I will freeze all TfL fares for four years” is pretty unambiguous.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where politicians breaking promises is taken as a basic fact of life, and as such the news that travelcard fares and contactless caps will continue to rise in spite of the pledge really shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The reason for the failure to freeze “all” TfL fares begs the question of how much thought went into the pledge in the first place. Unlike single tickets, the travelcard and cap fares are set by central government.
This isn’t something that suddenly became true after the election, and the wording of the pledge could easily have been tweaked to allow for it. But this would probably be at the cost of some voter impact. Instead, a literally impossible promise was made.
Although this incident adds to the many problems with TfL and its structure, as well as highlighting the limitations and overlap in the responsibilities of the mayoral office, the more troubling element is the cynicism of making promises like this for maximum electoral impact, either without sufficient research to confirm they’re possible, or in the knowledge that they aren’t.
Kahn’s continued defense of the promise adds to this point. “Delivered in full” is what he described it as on Twitter, showing a photograph of the original pledge, politically brave as it was in its precise wording. There’s no admission of failure, no apology for making a pledge that couldn’t be kept. Instead blame is bounced over to the government.
The sad truth about Kahn’s mayoral campaign is that his policies, views and comments escaped much of their deserved criticism. The Conservative campaign was crass in its focus on Kahn’s character and diverted attention away from the weakness of both parties’ manifestos towards a personality contest and a distracting controversy around the question of racism.
This cheap promise is one example of that, and it should have been analysed more closely at the time. Indeed the cost of it was commented on by TfL themselves, but the debate basically ended there.
Another example was Kahn’s comments on Uber. Both candidates made comments against Uber, with Kahn describing how he would ‘level the playing field’, seemingly by extending the overbearing and strangling regulation of the taxi industry to the private hire market as well. How better to level the playing field than by hurting everyone equally.
Here again, the ineffectual Goldsmith campaign failed to meaningfully criticise the comments or act as an alternative. As a result London is now lumped with a candidate who values an outmoded industry over the passenger benefits of market-led innovation, thanks to an opposition campaign that handed him victory almost as self-defeatingly as Corbyn frequently hands it to Cameron.
Kahn’s willingness to switch positions for electoral gain has been demonstrated in the past on issues such as Heathrow’s third runway and the so-called mansion tax, so it seems reasonable to interpret all of the above as populist politics in light of that. Reminding the country what seemed like eighty thousand times that his dad was a bus driver made it quite clear how keen he was to put across a certain image to the electorate.
This raises questions both over how he was allowed to become mayor, and how many of his policies will actually get enacted in any meaningful manner over the next four years. What’s clear is that this year’s mayoral election lacked any viable conservative option.
Given Eddie Izzard apparently has plans for a run at the mayor’s office in 2020, what’s needed then is a clear, principled alternative from the right that focuses on real issues and offers sensible, market-based policies that offer Londoners outcomes they can believe in.
Sadiq Khan certainly isn’t the worst mayor London ever had, and next to Ken Livingstone he seems like a positively solid option. But London is capable of a lot better than the trilogy of populism it has now endured. Let’s hope that 2020 brings some serious policies instead, at least from the right.