Sadiq Khan has kicked off his bid to be re-elected as mayor of London, announcing that he will make rent control a central pillar of his campaign.
On the face of it, the politics are largely positive for Khan: rent control is hugely popular among all voters, and particularly renters, who make up a great and growing slice of the capital’s voters.
But it also represents a big gamble on the mayor’s part. First of all, the London mayor does not at present have the power to control rents. Khan will be running not on a promise to deliver rent control but on a promise to ask to deliver rent control.
It emphasises one of the weakest areas of Khan’s mayoralty: his failure to expand the powers of the mayoralty. In 2016, he pledged to seek further powers from central government over transport, housing, youth justice, probation, the courts, and tax raising. He has received none of them. That’s not really his fault, and it may be that had David Cameron not lost the Brexit referendum in June 2016, then a devolution-minded George Osborne might well have handed over those additional powers and the Khan record would be altogether more successful.
In the real world, however, David Cameron did lose the Brexit referendum and there is no appetite from the present Conservative Party to give Khan further powers – even in areas where there is widespread political and expert consensus that it would be a good thing for the Mayor of London to have and exercise those powers.
In addition, it means making a policy that, while popular, has been consistently found not to work. Rent control incentivises landlords to remove their properties from the private rental market and instead to use them for the tourist market on AirBNB or other listings services, and creates steeper barriers to entry for new tenants.
Rent control does create some winners among renters, but crucially only among existing renters and at the expense of those starting new tenancies. Here, the dire state of tenants’ rights in the United Kingdom and the unintended consequences of rent control could create a particularly toxic cocktail: most renters don’t stay in the same rental contract for long, and it is very easy for landlords to move tenants on if they opt to move out of the private rented sector and into the holiday lettings market.
The policy is popular now, but with more than a full year to go before the next mayoral election, there is no guarantee it will remain so. It’s a boost to Khan that his Conservative opponent, Shaun Bailey, is a weak and a gaffe-prone campaigner; but it is still not certain than a year of public debate about the rights and wrongs of rent control end in a good place for Khan.
More worrying for the Labour campaign is that Khan is selling the pass as far as the question of what the mayoral election will be about. Sian Berry, who finished third last time, will surely hope that a combination of a weak Tory candidate in Bailey, the general feeling that Khan has it in the bag, and growing discontent in the capital with the sub-par efforts to tackle climate change or air pollution by national government, make it an ideal election for the Greens to come second by emphasising their opposition to Brexit and Heathrow; while the Liberal Democrats’ Siobhan Benita will want to do the same.
And in campaigning for a power he doesn’t have, Khan has legitimised his rivals in making issues that aren’t devolved to the capital the centrepiece of their election campaigns as well.
Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman.