On last night’s Question Time, David Lammy MP, the chairman of Ken’s election campaign, said: “What we need, and Ken Livingstone is proposing this in the elections, is rent control.” I like Lammy – Labour would be so much better off if he was their mayoral candidate – but what he said is untrue. Ken is not proposing rent control. He is merely trying to give people the impression that he is.
In a speech last month, however, Ken announced a significant retreat from this policy, presumably in recognition of the fact that he has no power to cap rents. He made no mention of London rent controls. His policy is now merely to “establish a campaign for a London living rent…learning from the success of the London Living Wage in arguing, cajoling, intervening and collaborating.”
Promising to campaign for something is different from promising to do it. And even if it happened, a living rent is very different from rent controls. The parallel Ken draws, the London living wage, is a commitment by employers to pay all their workers more than the statutory minimum. But it is totally voluntary, has no statutory force and has happened in only an enlightened minority of London workplaces.
In rents, it seems impossible that even this level of success can be achieved. City Hall, which under both Ken and Boris has helped drive through the adoption of the living wage, is itself a major employer, setting hundreds of thousands of wage rates across its agencies and subcontractors. By contrast, the mayor does not own a single property or set a single rent.
Yet Lammy was not the only person to give the wrong impression on this policy. The BBC reported last month’s speech under the headline “Ken Livingstone pledges rent control to help Londoners.” Perhaps they were remembering Ken’s previous claims and did not carefully read his actual words. Perhaps they were influenced by Ken’s artful soundbite after the speech, when he said: “Look at the city of New York, centre of world capitalism. They’ve always had rent controls and they’ve got a much better system.” Perhaps they were helped by Boris Johnson’s slightly inept response, reacting to the speech as if it were a pledge of rent controls.
Rents in London are horribly high and controls on them would, I’m sure, be popular. There’s a strong case for saying controls wouldn’t work – landlords would just take their properties off the market, making it even harder for tenants to find somewhere, and would probably try to sell them instead, driving down property prices and hurting owner-occupiers as well. There’s a case for saying that the “living rent” to be campaigned for by Ken wouldn’t make much difference to people who are struggling anyway. If, as Ken is proposing, it was set at a third of the average London wage, the “living” rent would be £240 a week, or more than £1000 a month.
But the strongest case of all is that – as on fares – Ken is engaged in yet another cynical raising of false hopes which he has no means, and no real intention, of fulfilling.