Beyond the pandemic: London votes for a mayor during crisis

01 May, 2021
Beyond the pandemic: London votes for a mayor during crisis
Recently, London was booming. Now it fears a bust.

Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have hit Britain’s capital in an ideal storm. In 2021, the town has fewer people, fewer businesses, starker divisions and tougher choices than anyone could have expected.

On May 6, Londoners will elect a mayor whose performance can help determine whether this is a period of decline for Europe’s biggest city - or a chance to do things better.

“It’s likely to be rough, definitely,” said Jack Brown, lecturer in London studies at King’s College London. “Those two quite seismic changes” - Brexit and the virus - “is a lot to handle.”

Plagues, fires, war - London has survived them all. But it has never had a year such as this. The coronavirus has killed a lot more than 15,000 Londoners and shaken the foundations of 1 of the world’s great cities. As a fast-moving mass vaccination campaign holds the promise of a wider reopening, The Associated Press talks about the pandemic’s effect on London’s persons and institutions and asks what the future might hold.

London's newly elected mayor will lead a city greater than 8 million that's facing the most common big-city troubles - inadequate affordable housing and transit, too much crime and pollution - in addition to a host of unprecedented problems.

A year of coronavirus lockdowns and travel restrictions have emptied the city's office towers, turn off its nightlife, shuttered its pubs and restaurants and banished international tourists. Time for normal will take a long time.

“We’ve lost about 300,000 jobs already, and greater than a million Londoners are furloughed,” said Mayor Sadiq Khan, who's seeking re-election. “Therefore the challenge is how exactly we avoid (the) mass unemployment of the 1980s.

“It’s really important to really have the same ambition our forefathers and foremothers had after the Second World War, because that’s scale of the task,” said Khan, whose priorities include coaxing persons back into metropolis center and easing the monetary inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic.

If judgment polls are right, Khan, 50, will probably win another term in Thursday’s election, which includes been delayed by a year because of the pandemic. Both he and his main challenger are made-in-London success stories.

Khan, a lawyer and person in the center-left Labour Party, may be the son of Pakistani immigrants. His father was a bus driver, his mother a seamstress.

Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey’s grandparents, meanwhile, are portion of the “Windrush generation” of post-World War II immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean. He was raised by a single mother in public areas housing in Ladbroke Grove, a location where pricey Victorian houses sit near run-down social housing blocks.

The 49-year-old former youth worker is a separate advocate of metropolis that he says gave him chances to thrive.

“More than any other place in the world, in the event that you result from a working-class background, London offers opportunities like no other,” said Bailey, who believes London’s biggest challenge is crime.

Bailey really wants to see more youth workers, more police officers on the beat and greater make use of stop-and-search powers to take knives and other weapons off the street. Stop-and-search is a hugely contentious policy because young Black men have already been disproportionately targeted, and this has been the focus of anti-racism protests around policing.

But Bailey says it’s essential.

“Finished . that’s making the Black community angry most importantly things is the rate at which our young persons are dying,” he said.

Both Khan and Bailey - and greater than a dozen other candidates, from Liberal Democrat and Green contenders to anti-lockdown activists and a bucket-headed comedian called Count Binface - know they are running in a city transformed by the virus and by Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Brexit poses a challenge to London by ending the free flow of folks from the continent and imperiling the city’s status as Europe’s financial hub. The pandemic, meanwhile, has challenged the very existence of megacities and the crowded spaces where persons live, work and travel.

After three decades of growth, London’s population fell in 2020 as persons moved out searching for more space during lockdown or returned to their regions or home countries. It remains to be observed if they will ever keep coming back.

Three lockdowns, now slowly but surely being lifted, kept office staff at home and turned the guts of London right into a ghost town. Millions no more commute downtown to work or play, as coronavirus restrictions forced people to stay local.

Across London - a “city of villages” whose neighborhoods retain distinct characters - the pandemic has led persons to reassess their priorities.

“If you go into central London … there’s nobody there, almost,” said Mark Burton, who runs a community arts venue in Walthamstow, a once-gritty, now-gentrifying area in the city’s northeast. “Whereas out here, there’s a vibrancy around the cafes.”

Burton thinks Khan did a fairly good job as mayor, though he wants more support for cycling and community ventures.

Across town in Ladbroke Grove, resident Nicholas Olajide likes rival Bailey’s pledge to cut crime. He, too, thinks the pandemic has given the location a fresh sense of itself.

“I think it has awakened a feeling of community in people,” Olajide said. “Before, London was going just how whereby we were no more a community, no longer our neighbors’ keeper. But I feel that has taken us back together. People staying home and caring about their neighbors, working at home - it has brought families closer together.”

Sian Berry, the Green Party candidate for mayor, says the pandemic has exposed the yawning gaps in London society and left persons wanting “a fresh start.”

“It’s an extremely exciting place to live, London, but it’s polluted, it's rather a strain, and living costs are much too high,” she said. “Each neighborhood in London has its spirit, too, and we ought to be nurturing that.”

Brown, the London historian, is optimistic about London’s ability to bounce back. It has been through a down economy before in its 2,000 years of existence.

“London’s ancient history is really among getting set on fire once in a while - the complete city burns down - and then everybody gets the plague,” he said. “This happens in a cycle for a long time and years and persons keep coming back.

“The long history of London is among incredible resilience. It’s even a little uncaring sometimes. It doesn’t always take everyone with it. However the place itself, its economy, its appeal, sort of endures,” he said.