If Ken Livingstone loses the mayoral election, the result will obscure likely gains in the London Assembly and the true scale of Labour support in the capital.
A week today voters go to the polls in London to elect their Mayor and Assembly; Chris Terry, co-founder of Britain Votes, previews the elections
No British election will receive quite as much coverage as the London mayoral election on May 3rd this year, and deservedly so; the Mayor of London has the second largest directly elected mandate in Europe, beaten only by the French president.
Overall, London is marginally left-of-centre. Labour beat the Tories by 2 points in London in the 2010 general election, even as they faced national meltdown. Inner city and ethnic minority areas, in particular, tend to lean strongly towards Labour.
Still, this is not Wales, and Labour is not an unbeatable hegemon. More sub-urban seats tend to go Conservative; Kensington and Chelsea was, until 2010, one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. Boris’s 2008 victory owed in part to a ‘doughnut strategy’ of getting out the vote in these areas.
London is electorally important for all parties on several levels. Firstly, the city has 73 Westminster constituencies: a good performance bodes well for the future. Secondly, it will receive the lion’s share of media coverage on May 4th. Yet for the Conservatives in particular, it may have more personal ramifications.
Credible rumours persist that Boris Johnson eventually plans a return to the Commons, and to take over the leadership of his party when Cameron ends his time in Downing Street. If he wins, it will give him further credibility as an electable politician with significant executive experience. If he loses, it may speed up his return to Westminster, where he could cause headaches for Cameron on the backbenches.
On paper, Labour should have the advantage. The city’s tendency to lean towards the party, and differential turnout effect – in which opposition supporters tend to be more motivated to turn out and vote than government ones – should theoretically favour the party.
Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that the nature of the mayoral system makes this unlike any other election in the UK. With electors voting for candidates and not parties, it is uniquely personalised. As such, it tends to attract a maverick array of character politicians as opposed to more traditional party heavyweights.
• Boris and Ken clash over tax dodge claims 3 Apr 2012
• Pound for pound, you’re better off with Ken 13 Mar 2012
Boris Johnson is also a wilier politician than many think. His comments on government policy sometimes place him to the right of the government, as on tax and regulation of the city, and sometimes to its left, as on housing benefits and immigration. In doing so Johnson styles himself as more cosmopolitan than Cameron’s shire Toryism.
Moreover, his time in power in London is notable for its lack of controversy. On the whole, Boris has largely continued the policies of his predecessor with relatively minor adjustments. Few criticisms of him have gained serious traction.
By contrast, Ken Livingstone faces serious questions regarding his serial gaffing – in particular, his infamous comments on Jews – as well as questions surrounding his tax avoidance. While he remains very popular in some parts of London, and his manifesto is very populist, he is certainly the underdog in this contest. Polling crosstabs show a significant number of Labour supporters supporting Boris for this election.
The Liberal Democrats have never really had a strong foothold in London. In the last mayoral election their candidate, Brian Paddick, achieved a meagre 9.6% of the vote. Being the Lib Dem candidate in London this year was always going to be difficult. Fighting for the mayoralty is a long and gruelling process for any major party candidate, but when your party has a very low chance of winning at the best of times, and is extremely toxic nationally, the opportunity appeals even less.
For a long time, the only Lib Dem running was Lembit Opik, a prospect so frightening to his party that they extended the nomination deadline by a year to give other candidates a chance to jump in. Ultimately Paddick won the battle of the not-Lembits, but he is generally seen as a poor media performer – a poor attribute to have in a personality led contest. Paddick’s poll ratings put him in the 6-7% range, which is probably what counts as the Lib Dem core vote in London.
The Greens are running Jenny Jones, whose lack of charisma makes it unlikely that she will match her predecessor Sian Berry’s 3.15% of the vote. UKIP are running the anonymous Lawrence Webb, while the BNP’s Carlos Cortiglia is mostly getting attention for originating in Uruguay.
UKIP has taken the odd choice to use the ballot descriptor ‘Fresh Choice for London’; this makes it unlikely that Webb will be able to gain much from high UKIP poll ratings. The BNP appears to be essentially moribund. It is difficult to see either candidate impressing.
Then there is Siobhan Benita. Certainly, there is a buzz about Benita in the broadsheets and on Twitter; the trouble is that the buzz extends little further than that. Those I know who have met her say she is engaging, intelligent and empathetic. Yet she is running an anti-elitist campaign – a mysteriously well funded one – after 14 years in the civil service. It is hard not to feel that this is a very middle class anti-elitism.
It is also hard to believe that many normal Londoners actually know who she is, since the buzz is entirely restricted to outlets read by the highly politically engaged. Without a party machine behind her, she loses out in terms of election broadcasts and has to build an ad hoc activist ground force. Some have suggested that she could surge from nowhere. That would seem unlikely, if not impossible. Still, it may not be the last we hear from Benita, in the likely event that she loses.
While the mayoral election will grab most attention, it is worth remembering that the London Assembly is also being elected. The Assembly is composed of 25 seats, 14 elected by FPTP in massive ‘super-constituencies’ and 11 elected from lists, using the Additional Member System. Voters have one vote for both types of seat.
In a sense, the Assembly is the more psephologically interesting election. Electors will be voting for parties rather than individuals: this means that personality politics will not obscure people’s support for parties at the national level to the same degree. This is likely to provide a much better clue to the standing of parties in London.
What polling there is for the Assembly is scant and of unknown reliability, but seems to suggest that Labour is ahead. What is particularly interesting is the size of the gap. If Labour is only a few points ahead in the Assembly election, that would suggest that Labour is still not in a particularly good position throughout the capital, or that Boris has succeeded in detoxifying Conservatism in London.
If there is a big gap – above 5% would qualify – and yet Boris wins, that suggests that the Ken vs Boris show obscures Labour’s true support in the capital.
For the smaller parties, the question is whether they can pass the 5% threshold necessary to win list seats.
Lib Dems in the Assembly outperformed Paddick in 2008 by about 2 points, and it seems likely they will out-perform him again. They are probably safe. The Greens have been represented in every elected Assembly, but this time a YouGov poll has shown them below the threshold. Thanks to Jenny Jones’s poor campaign, they have had much less attention than usual, but for now, predicting that they will lose out on representation entirely is possibly a little far-fetched.
One party that almost certainly will lose out is the BNP, having just edged a seat in 2008 with 5.1% of the vote (their AM, Richard Barnbrook, subsequently left during the party’s ensuing power struggles).
UKIP are harder to predict. The party had two AMs after 2004, although they subsequently defected to Veritas, ultimately setting up the ‘One London’ party once Veritas imploded. The party is polling well nationally, but it tends to do less well in London. YouGov shows it on 5% in the Assembly vote which would put it just on the edge of securing representation.
Overall, London is likely to produce a mixed result for Labour, with a likely defeat in the mayoral election counterbalanced with gains in the Assembly.
In the press, this will be interpreted as a blow to Labour. Giving the impression of lost momentum, that will be worse for the party. If this is combined with a loss in the Glasgow City Council election, it will be interpreted as a bad night for the party, even if it gains hundreds of council seats across England and seats in the London Assembly.
The Lib Dems’ cycle of decline is likely to continue, but it will not be disastrous; they are likely to retain third party status in the Assembly, and London as a whole. The picture is more mixed for other parties, but a strong showing by UKIP may demonstrate that recent poll ratings are not simply hot air.