Notes on the London mayoral election

The votes have been cast, the ballots have been counted, and the verdict is in. After an eight-year absence, a Labour mayor is back in City Hall. Sadiq Khan will be the first Muslim (and indeed the first ethnic minority) to occupy the seat formerly held by Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, and his mandate is highly respectable, garnering 56% of the vote. Sadiq has promised to govern as his own man, and to distance himself from the rapidly-disintegrating Parliamentary Labour Party; there is no reason yet to doubt him.

So why did Zac lose? Some cynics might argue that he’s simply fallen victim to demographic realities – the middle-class voter base that the Tories have relied on are now moving out of London, to be replaced by working-class and/or ethnic Labour supporters. That’s true, to an extent; whereas ten years ago middle-class families were moving within London to areas like Richmond, Hampstead or Northwood, a mixture of declining living conditions and rising prices have meant that many are no longer London voters, having fled to the green and pleasant lands of Hertfordshire, Surrey or Kent. This is definitely going to have an impact upon the Conservative vote.

But it isn’t quite so easy as that. These demographic changes didn’t happen overnight; they were well underway when Boris Johnson won in both 2008 and 2012. Zac’s loss might have been exacerbated by these factors, but it’s certainly not reducible to it. Nor can the loss be explained merely by playing the ethnic card. Whilst London is indeed a majority-minority city – White British voters make up only 40% of the population – that conceals a huge amount of variation. Muslims only make up 12% of London’s population, and even if every single one were to vote for Sadiq – which is patently untrue, with many famous Muslim Tories hailing from London – it wouldn’t be nearly enough for him to gain victory.

The answer, then, is that Zac lost because he was a weak candidate. That’s not to malign him as a person – I’m assured that he’s a very decent fellow and a damn good constituency MP. But his campaign was decidedly poor, especially in comparison to Sadiq’s well-thought-through one. For much of the race, Zac simply didn’t seem to have much passion or energy. Instead, what the public saw was a rather anaemic and listless man, with none of the verve that had characterised his Conservative predecessor Boris Johnson.

Zac’s campaign lacked a ‘big idea’, a grand overarching theme that could have tied together all the other elements of his platform. Instead, he opted for the trouble-shooter approach, offering common-sense solutions to individual problems, one step at a time. In many ways that’s the sensible thing to do, and in terms of solid policy proposals Zac was far ahead of Sadiq. He offered well-costed, logical ideas which would have gone some way towards solving the problems being faced by Londoners; the housing crisis, rising transport fees, and community cohesion concerns.

But that wasn’t enough. Sadiq had very effectively branded himself as a ‘mayor for all Londoners.’ He leveraged his background to appeal to the traditional Labour base, but was never obnoxious or overtly racial. Equally important in his pitch to his ethnic background was the fact that he was ‘the son of a bus driver’ – a working-class boy done good. He went into overdrive reassuring groups of his desire to unify the city; for instance, he spoke convincingly of his support for the financial services sector, an area traditionally leery of Labour.

He also made this race about him, not his party. He put clear water between him and Jeremy Corbyn, emphasising that he would not merely be an extension of the dysfunctional national Labour Party. Zac’s campaign attempted to play the Corbyn card, suggesting that Sadiq would turn London into a testing-ground for Corbynite policies, but this narrative never really took off – mainly because there was never any good evidence for it.

In the latter stages of the campaign, I think Zac’s advisors realised that they were suffering as a result of their lack of an overarching theme. This could have been their chance to find a strong narrative for the party to rally round, and might have swung the race in Zac’s favour. Unfortunately, they then made one of the largest mistakes of the campaign, turning it into a viciously personal attack on Sadiq.

There’s no proof for this, but Lynton Crosby’s fingerprints are all over this. Crosby is the master of using spectacular tactics to shock (and often scare) voters into plumping for the Conservatives. In 2015 his stroke of genius was to convince the electorate that a vote for anybody but the Tories would be a vote for Nicola Sturgeon. It doesn’t seem beyond belief that he attempted to use this trick again; convince the electorate that Sadiq was a friend of terrorists and extremists, hence making Zac the only choice.

This isn’t in character for Zac, which is why I suspect it was a strategy foisted upon him by figures higher up in the Party. It was also a strategy which bombed catastrophically. This was for two reasons – and racism isn’t one of them. In fact, I’m somewhat disappointed in many Labour activists who labelled the Tories racist during the campaign; it’s an ideologically dishonest way of shutting down debate.

However, the accusations were for the most part untrue or exaggerated. The most damning evidence seemed to be that Sadiq had argued for radical Islamist Yusuf Qaradawi to be allowed to enter the country. Here I feel that we’ve scored an own goal. As a Tory I celebrate free speech in all its manifestations. I support the right of Nick Griffin or David Irving to speak whenever and wherever they’re invited, because I believe it’ll discredit their ideology; in the same vein, I feel that a man like Qaradawi shouldn’t be prevented from speaking in Britain. Yes, much of what he says is medieval and offensive; but unless it can be proven that what he says will directly precipitate violence, he should be allowed to say it. Hopefully, an open platform will expose how asinine and barbaric his views are. Sadiq shouldn’t be criticised for enabling free speech, something which we Conservatives have fought long and hard to preserve.

The other issue which Zac pressed Sadiq on was the fact that he’d shared a platform with various dubious characters. Yes, that’s true; but what of it? There was never a suggestion that he himself had espoused those views, and that’s because (to the best of my knowledge) he hasn’t. Indeed, he may well have exerted a moderating influence upon more radical individuals.  In hindsight they weren’t the brightest things to do, but Sadiq proved he can move beyond them.

That’s the other problem; Labour foresaw this angle, and by the time the inevitable assault came Sadiq had already established his bona fides through a series of well-choreographed speeches and meetings which put clear water between him and the radicals. He denounced Ken Livingstone as the repulsive anti-Semite he is; he assiduously courted the Jewish vote without coming across as artificial; he put counterterrorism at the heart of his campaign. As such, Zac’s broadsides against him ended up seeming weak and ill-considered.

So what next? What’s clear is that we need to wage a stronger and more coherent campaign next time. This election was a bit of a mess, to be honest; lacking in an ideological direction, and far too negative and pessimistic. There’s a lot Zac could have said about the vision he had for the city; instead he chose to run a campaign based on what he didn’t want. For 2020 we need a campaign which clearly expresses a Conservative vision for the city, and which is clearly ideologically different to our opponents. At times Zac seemed to be playing catch-up with Sadiq; not a good position to be in.

Furthermore, we need a more electable candidate. Zac is a splendid fellow, but he simply didn’t have the charisma necessary to convince people of his passion. This isn’t a question of class; Boris has been an exceptionally popular mayor, despite being eminently upper-class. But where Boris embraced his ‘poshness’ and made it a loveable quality, Zac tried to mask it behind an at-times risible Everyman persona that convinced nobody. We need a candidate who is confident, affable and who appeals to all Londoners; a candidate with a narrative. That doesn’t necessarily mean picking an ethnic minority or a female candidate, as some have rather cynically suggested. But there needs to be an awareness of how any candidate will play with those groups.

The final factor is out of anybody’s hands, to an extent. 2020 will be the first time that a mayoral election coincides with a general election. As such, success or failure in City Hall will be determined by No. 10. If the Tories go into the election as saviours of the economy, united and confident, they’ll make the job a lot easier for whoever’s contesting London for them. On the other hand, if the results of the referendum force a collapse in the party, and if Labour have found a more electable leader than the present idiot-in-chief, life will be tough for a Conservative mayoral candidate.

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