class and farce – two comments on the london election

So Sadiq Khan is now officially Mayor of London. The media haven’t missed an opportunity to point out that the city is the first major western European capital to be run by a Muslim. I read a comment on social media which argued that, interesting though this fact might be, the important thing is that the son of working class immigrants beat the son of a billionaire to become the elected Mayor. There is a certain appeal to this class aspect of Khan’s victory. But a working class background isn’t synonymous with working class consciousness. After all, we’re no stranger to fabulously wealthy/successful people, apparently proud of their humble roots, who display barely-disguised contempt for those who fail to follow in their footsteps and ‘better themselves’. Others believe class is irrelevant. So while Khan’s win is heartening (and, yes, more than a little satisfying), even more important is whether he can make life better for Londoners of all backgrounds, but especially those who are really struggling to get by. And he does have some interesting policies. Priority number one, of course, must be housing — providing decent and affordable homes (note the emphasis on homes, rather than property), secure tenancies and social rents. This will be the real benchmark against which Londoners should judge the Mayor. 

The disgraceful campaign waged by a main rival candidate really isn’t worthy of further comment here.

On election day, the London Borough of Barnet made the national headlines and #Barnet was trending on social media. By mid-morning, stories had begun to emerge of voters being turned away from their local polling stations. The Council advised voters to take their polling cards, even though you don’t actually need the card to be able to vote and several (would-be) voters with cards had also been sent away. Then we learned that Barnet’s polling stations had received wrong and incomplete lists of voters. How on earth could this happen? Naturally, there were rumours of a conspiracy to disenfranchise sections of the Barnet electorate. And yes, people who were unable to return to polling stations or who missed the hastily-opened (and decidedly narrow) window to apply for an emergency proxy vote were effectively denied their vote. But I suspect the most likely explanation is much more farcical and, sadly, symptomatic of the situation in the borough. Barnet is run on the lines of the ‘Easy Council’ model. A while ago, the Council embarked on a programme of sell-offs and outsourcing, ostensibly to gain the best value for money. (According to the Council, electoral services haven’t been outsourced.) But in reality, it has meant the hollowing out of services, competence — and accountability. When things go wrong, who’s responsible for putting them right? This is the problem with ‘thin government’ and the ‘rolled-back’ state. We reasonably expect public services and public life — including democracy — to function properly. If something fails, we reasonably expect the government/state to be accountable and competent to respond with effective action. But it can’t do these things when it’s been reduced to a shell.

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