Features editor Fred Taylor interviews the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor ahead of the 2024 elections.
The office of the London Mayor will reach its 24th anniversary at its next election in May. Since then we’ve seen two Labour candidates, one Conservative and one Independent- a grand total of three people- hold the keys to the fireplace of the Big Smoke. The best result for the liberal democrats (LibDems) came in 2004 where they got 15% of the vote- 21% less than the eventual victor Ken Livingstone. In the most recent election in 2021 just 4.4% of voters put their trust in them.
But why is this? Surely in the liberal capital, which overwhelmingly voted against Brexit, and which is the presumed home of the liberal elite of the country, the LibDems would have mustered a bit more than that?
Perhaps 2024 will be their breakthrough year. With the current mayor‘s popularity constantly dwindling and the capital’s problems with violent crime, housing and the cost of living worsening, maybe voters will look elsewhere come the ballot boxes in May. To find out more about Khan’s liberal opposition, Roar News spoke to the liberal democrat candidate for mayor, Rob Blackie on the main issues affecting students in London today.
Our discussion started with a problem every KCL student should be able to identify with: the housing crisis. The rent in London reached an all-time high under Khan, with Londoners forking out an average of £26k for their homes. At the same time, the quality of properties is getting worse and worse. For students planning to stay in London after graduating, there is no end in sight, as the average deposit for a property in London recently reached £115k. When questioned, Blackie was quick to diagnose the cause behind this crisis.
“If the population increases quite fast, the way it has been in recent years… you’ve got to build more housing inside and outside London”.
While he doesn’t believe that Khan bears the totality of the blame for the high prices, he does not think he’s scot-free either.
“I wouldn’t say it is entirely his fault because the country hasn’t built enough housing. But it is partly his fault and he has lagged on housebuilding and that is a really large challenge for London”.
He contrasts the London-wide approach to housebuilding to that in the LibDem council of Sutton, in the south-west of the capital. He highlighted how Sutton had beaten the housing target. “They have managed to build on former industrial land at good quality housing at decent density, near public transport where there is already infrastructure, they’ve densified town centres”.
I challenged him on this. In some circles, the LibDems have acquired an image of being insufficiently ambitious on housing. At the recent party conference, Ed Davey, the leader of the party, attempted to eliminate housing targets from their manifesto altogether. While in London, Sutton has performed, LibDem Kingston missed the housing target by 440 in 2022/23 (almost 60% of the required stock) and 451 in 2021/22, with 2017/18 being the last time they met their housing target.
Blackie did not seem worried by these apparent contradictions: “It does of course take a very long time to turn these things around. We took control just a few years ago [in Kingston] it takes time to get stuff going, you have to rewrite your plan and all that sort of stuff.”
But the Liberal Democrats have been in power in Kingston since 2018 and were in power in 2012, when the core strategy was drafted. Despite this, the LibDem candidate’s message is clear. “We’ve got to build more”. He also made it clear that the environment would not pay the price for this increased construction, referencing a measure Sutton employs: “all development only happens when it is going to improve the environmental value of the area for people”.
“We’ve got to build more”Rob Blackie
Moving on from the construction of more housing, I asked Blackie about the validity of Sadiq Khan’s calls for rent controls to combat high rents. He describes this move as “a bit of a distraction”, since Khan does not have the power to introduce rent controls and further argues that such a measure could make matters worse, as landlords would be reluctant to rent to people who they don’t have a personal relation with, as they would not be able to choose people based on price.
Crime and policing
Editor’s note: This section involves discussion of sexual violence, violent crime, homophobia and transphobia.
Crime stats in London have not gone the way of Khan across the last seven years, especially since the pandemic. There are 25,000 sexual offences reported each year in London, compared to 16 thousand in the year before Khan was elected. Knife crime surged by 16% last year and the number of violent crimes has increased by 40,000 since 2016/17. Homophobic crime is at a ten-year high and transphobic crime is at an all-time high.
Blackie is quick to pounce on Khan’s record. “I think the Mayor’s record on crime is terrible,” he says. “He’s been in charge of the police in London for 7 years now… and there’s been a complete collapse in the ability, in the success of the police in bringing people to trial. It started off bad by the way but it’s got a lot worse”.
The LibDem candidate tells a rather scathing story on the extent of the Met’s incompetence in handling sexual violence.
“If you dig into the Casey Report, there’s a quote in there from somebody, saying they had lost track of the number of rape cases that had been dropped because the evidence had been lost.
“One particular example of where a lot of cases are lost are broken fridges, where basically the forensic samples are being kept after rape cases. The fridges there then broke, and that is a simple thing to fix. With good management you would fire people for that, you would make sure it never happened again”.
As well as incompetence, he also indicts Khan for endemic policy failures in policing.
“Across the last five years, there’s been over a million stop and searches in London and that’s terrible from two points of view, one of which is it’s a massive waste of police time and money that could be used for serious crimes like sexual offences. But it’s also terrible for relationships between the police and the people they police”.
He concludes that the “Mayor just hasn’t been interested in this”, unable to find another explanation for the police failures that have, in his opinion, led to an increase in crime in the capital.
“The Mayor just hasn’t been interested in [crime]”Rob Blackie
But does Blackie have the key to start solving some of these problems? He outlined some of the measures he would use to tackle the rising levels of hate crimes in the capital.
“There’s a lot of things you have to crack, but one of the things has to be about recruiting enough people, because obviously it’s much easier, you recruit from the bottom typically, so you’ve got to change that bowl of people you are recruiting from, and you’ve also got to expand it and right now they’re failing to both recruit enough people and instil a more diverse set of people.
“On LGBT crime specifically, what we need to do is get better at recording the crimes and actually then checking that we are investigating them properly because one of the problems historically has been… [that since] the data has not been collected properly, it has been hard to prove when they’ve been failures”.
Perhaps surprisingly for a liberal candidate in London, Blackie has also criticised Khan for his ULEZ expansion, claiming that the measures were “too blunt” and “needed to be more targeted”. He expanded on this.
“In Inner London, when the first phase of ULEZ was brought in, inside the north and south circulars, it was very popular, but the reason for that was that everyone had 3 years to adapt… people in outer London have got 9 months and the challenge in outer London was that of course transport is worse.
“So people also had fewer alternatives, and less time to adapt, so that’s why we said that there needs to be a bit more time to adapt to maintain public support for it”.
Following on from this, the aspiring Mayor affirmed his intention to continue with ULEZ policies at some time during his mayorship.
“I’m absolutely in favour in principle, it’s just about making sure it works… Three years is probably more than we need but what we’re going to do is we’re going to look at how people have adapted in the first few months and then to take a judgement from there”.
We ended our discussion on the Tory candidate for mayor currently polling at 35%. In 2024, for the first time ever, the mayoral election will use the first past the post system, meaning that a split in votes between the LibDem and Labour candidates could lead to a breakthrough win for the Tories.
However, Blackie seemed content with the FPTP system, “the bad thing about FPTP is also the good thing, which is that anything can happen… there is a great opportunity for us to overtake the Conservatives and to be the main opposition for mayor.”
He described how he did not consider Hall, the Conservative candidate for Mayor, a threat, despite her relatively high polling numbers, as her support for Trump and Brexit was “out of step with modern London.” He said that as more Londoners learn about who she is, the Liberal Democrats will benefit.
I also asked the candidate about his innovative “London Passport” scheme, designed to accommodate citizens of London without a British passport. He outlines how it would work:
“You might have lived in London for decades but still have a French, Greek or Italian passport. And then people have been asked to suddenly sort of apply for an immigration status, for settled status (due to the effect of the Brexit withdrawal agreement). And so a lot of people put into that situation, where it’s hard for them to prove [that they have been resident for the required five years]”.
The objective of the London Passport is to ensure that these people are treated fairly before the law and that Home Office incompetence or hostility does not stand in the way. It also has a second dimension.
“There are quite a lot of young people in London who are British in everything apart from their papers. So they might not have been born here but they have certainly lived here virtually their whole life, gone to school here.
“The funny thing is, they are entitled to British citizenship typically because of the length of residence but they can’t pay the fees, because the fees are massive and of course, the process is quite clunky.
“And so our idea here is to help them get through that process, and again there’s lots of flavours of problem here but you can get a sense of the problems are”.
So, when you eventually get to the ballot boxes in half a year’s time, don’t think of Blackie as a replica of Khan. He is far from that. The Liberal Democrat will bring a different approach to the capital’s governance, aiming to clear up Khan’s perceived imperfections, armed with new ideas and a renewed focus on the capital’s problems. The question remains: will his candidacy break the 5% barrier this time?