Mayoral candidates debate sustainable transport policy – but can they keep it clean?

On Friday, The Times hosted a mayoral hustings called “Keep London Moving”. The topic of discussion was the future of transport in London – with a particular focus on cycling and sustainability.

Labour’s Sadiq Khan currently has a sizeable lead in the polls with a recent survey by YouGov increasing his lead to 20 percentage points once second preferences are taken into account. Having said that, we know the polls have been wrong before and Sadiq’s team aren’t taking anything for granted. There’s no doubt however that the contest is a two-horse race with voters ultimately deciding between Khan and Conservative Zac Goldsmith.

Despite many commentators now suggesting that Thursday’s election is a forgone conclusion, the candidates declared their delight at the opportunity to debate transport policy. Reading between the lines though there was a sense of fatigue and Sadiq couldn’t hide his relief when noting that this was their final hustings before the election.

Given that this “dirty” contest has been sullied by allegations of racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, there was a feeling of trepidation about the potential for a clash between Zac and Sadiq. As it happened, the event was a relatively subdued affair.  Surprisingly it was over an hour until Zac and Sadiq were questioned about the furore surrounding Ken Livingstone’s suspension from the Labour party following comments which were widely interpreted as anti-Semitic. Sadiq dutifully noted that the purpose of this meeting was to discuss transport – before being drawn to comment that Ken’s comments were “appalling” and “disgusting”. Zac agreed that the Labour party had “covered itself in shame”.

Scandals aside, there was further agreement between the candidates on the virtues of cycling as a green mode of transport and the need to make London’s air cleaner and its roads safer for people on two wheels.

However, there was disagreement over the future of airports in the South East. Caroline Pidgeon of the Liberal Democrats boldly declared that there should be no airport expansion whatsoever. Sadiq favours the expansion of Gatwick; whereas Zac – a die-hard opponent of Heathrow expansion – couldn’t decide between increased capacity at Stansted or Gatwick. The boldest position is held by Green party candidate Sian Berry who has pledged to get rid of City airport entirely.

The candidates also disagreed over the pricing strategy for fares within the capital. Sadiq pledges to freeze Transport for London fares for four years – which Goldsmith says would prevent necessary investment in infrastructure. Sian Berry has committed to implementing "flat fares" across all London travel zones, whereas the Lib Dems promise half-price fares for journeys starting before 07:30.

While it was clear at the event that the contest is between Labour and the Conservatives – with the majority of questions being directed towards Zac and Sadiq – the other candidates provided much more than window dressing. Sian Berry of the Greens delivered a convincing speech and seemed to be at a natural advantage given the current emphasis on sustainability and the fact she spent many years working at the “Campaign for Better Transport” charity.  Similarly, Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon gave a strong performance drawing on her experience as the deputy chair of the London Assembly's Transport Committee.

That said, even these impressive performances are unlikely to give the Greens or Lib Dems a chance at victory on Thursday. Arguably the main point of interest now is whether more dirt is thrown by Labour and the Tories or if they can make the final days of campaigning as clean as they’d like London’s transport to be.   

Jennifer Giff

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search