4 lessons from the London Mayoral and Assembly elections for Labour’s general election prospects

These are the issues that need to be reckoned with

Labour leader Keir Starmer with London Mayor Sadiq Khan

Unmesh Desai is London Assembly Member for City and East, covering Barking and Dagenham, the City of London, Newham, and Tower Hamlets. He is London Assembly Labour’s spokesperson on policing and crime

Keir Starmer’s first steps for Government show that he and his team are making Labour ready to govern, and prepared to bring about the transformation changes the country needs. 

If the polls are to be believed – though the only one that matters is the vote itself – this now looks like a likely outcome in July. 

London’s elections earlier this month show that London will probably deliver a lot of any Labour victory nationally – but there are some issues to be reckoned with.

1. Labour has won a third term for our mayor – showing that our reputation in London is as strong as our record of delivery.

We retained 11 Assembly Members, a significant achievement for a third term.

After 8 years under a Labour Mayor, we would expect to see support drop as voters are no longer seeing the damage the previous Conservative Mayor caused – and they begin to “bake in” the benefits of a Labour administration.

Retaining the same level of support across the Assembly is a sign of our strong campaigning record – and of our vision to make London a safer, greener and better-off place.

2. There are some suburban issues

For Labour to win Government, we will need to pick up seats in suburban areas across the country.

There are encouraging parts of this election – Labour delivered Assembly Members in outer London constituencies like Ealing & Hillingdon and Brent & Harrow, showing that the Tories couldn’t completely drown out Labour’s positive message.

But we must reckon with the fact that we lost the Mayoral vote in lots of areas of outer London, with Susan Hall, the Conservative candidate, out polling Sadiq Khan in both the above constituencies, despite the historic unpopularity of the Tories.

We didn’t make big inroads elsewhere, even with good local campaigns. In Bexley and Bromley, for example, there was less than a 0.5% swing to Labour in the Mayoral vote – showing that we need to do more to win over voters in the outer areas of our cities.

The Conservatives tried to push the idea that Labour was anti-car and that Sadiq Khan is responsible for crime across the city. In spite of their negative and dirty tactics – such as their faceless online groups – Labour saw a mixed result.

While there is much to be proud of, Labour must find ways to get our messages across in the outer suburbs if we are to pick up enough seats for a majority – and I hope to see a renewed focus on those areas in the coming weeks.

3. Labour cannot take our core voters for granted.

We must do more to get out the vote in areas that have traditionally voted for us. My constituency of City and East London, an area that has traditionally voted Labour, saw the lowest turnout across London.

Until now, I was proud to say that I had one of the largest majorities of any Labour politician in the country. In 2021 my constituency in East London awarded me 125,000 votes – an honour that I did not take lightly. In this election, that has fallen just below 100,000 for the first time since 2008.

I must be honest with myself about the loss of enthusiasm many of my constituents have had in Labour to represent them – and must consider why many chose not to vote at all.

On the doorstep there were some big issues that caused many to drift away from Labour.

For many people this was about the conflict in the Middle East. Sadiq Khan has consistently called for a ceasefire since October but Labour nationally was perceived as slow to call for one – only demanding this in February.

This could have had an impact in Havering and Redbridge, where an independent campaigning on the Gaza issue won a fairly solid share of the vote. This, along with a stronger than expected Green vote, was enough to see Labour defeated again.

While London’s elections were regional, and the results are unlikely to impact the war in the Middle East, we know that many voters identify strongly with those suffering there.

Seats with more diverse populations, including communities like those who live in East London, have solidly supported Labour in the past, but we must not take their support for granted. There are dozens of other seats like it across the country and we must make sure that we give these communities a reason to vote for us on polling day.

We can expect that the Conservatives will use divisive tactics, trying to weaponise race or migration to tear apart communities for their electoral gain. Labour must push our positive message of hope, not hate, to defeat them.

4. Labour cannot rely on the tactical support of Green and Lib Dem voters to get us across the line.

This election saw Sadiq Khan explicitly ask for Greens and Lib Dems to lend him their support. Previously, Londoners had a first and second preference vote, but the Government took away this option – meaning that third party supporters had to vote tactically to keep the Tories out.

Largely, those voters did that. We did not, however, see that support translate to the other elections taking place that day. Labour, for the first time, only won one seat on the London-wide list.

That’s because those lending their vote to the Mayor did not feel the need to vote Labour on the list. The Greens, for example, won just under 6% of the voters for mayor, but 11.5% of votes on the list. The same pattern is true for the Lib Dems, who also won 6% of Mayoral voters but increased that to almost 9% on the list.

Labour’s support from those who tend towards third parties is not unconditional, and we saw many of those voters express their honest views where they felt they could. We saw this in South-West London, where Sadiq won the Mayoral vote but the constituency was picked up by the Lib Dems – the first Assembly Constituency they’ve held.

This may not be a worry. General elections are on a First Past The Post system – squeezing voters into supporting one of the two main parties. But if Labour is not winning over the hearts and minds of third-party voters, they will drift away from us as soon as their preferred party looks competitive in whatever seat those voters live in.

Labour is strong in London. For the past 8 years, our Mayor has delivered free school meals for kids, a fares freeze on TfL, the new superloop and more council housing than any point since the 1970s. Our Assembly Members have echoed this – winning campaigns to keep ticket offices open, to improve laws on zombie knives, anti-drink spiking measures and an increase to Local Housing Allowance, to name a few.

However, if we want to translate this record of delivery into victories in the general election then there are areas that must be addressed. Labour must learn from London – and we must do so by July.

Image credit: Keir Starmer Flickr – Creative Commons

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