A big boost for Labour in London: Mehdi Hasan on the battle for mayor

Ken v Boris just got very interesting. The former mayor has much more than a fighting chance come May.

Back in November 2010, I wrote in my NS column:

One of the most frustrating aspects to writing a regular column on British politics is having to challenge the conventional wisdom in which so many of our leading broadcasters, reporters, columnists and now bloggers seem to bathe. Groupthink abounds inside the Westminster village. Lazy assumptions proliferate like weeds.

Take the run-up to the general election. For much of 2009, political correspondents and pollsters, columnists and commentators queued up to predict the size of the impending Tory landslide. Would it be double-digit? Or triple-digit? The idea that the Tories might fail to win the election outright was, to put it mildly, considered "unconventional".

I also noted how I had been

mocked by some of my peers for daring to suggest on these pages, in June 2009, in the wake of Labour's humiliating defeat at the European elections, that the Tories' poll ratings were "soft" and Labour still had "a fighting chance of a hung parliament at next year's general election".

So I couldn't help but smile when a press release from YouGov, with the results of their latest poll on London's forthcoming mayoral election, dropped into my inbox this morning.

It revealed that Ken Livingstone had overtaken Tory incombent Boris Johnson in the race for City Hall, with the Labour candidate taking a narrow 51-49 lead.

Ken takes lead over Boris in race for Mayor

announced the headline in the Evening Standard.

Refreshingly, YouGov president Peter Kellner openly confessed:

The facts have changed, so I have changed my mind.

Throughout last year, I regarded Boris Johnson as the likeliest winner of London's coming mayoral election. YouGov and other pollsters showed consistently that around one-in-five Labour supporters would desert Ken Livingstone and vote for Boris. From Labour's viewpoint, London began to look alarmingly like Scotland, where Alex Salmond won his stunning victory last year because one in five normally Labour voters switched to the SNP.

Our latest poll tells a different story. We find a five-point swing from Boris to Ken. Last June, Boris enjoyed an eight-point lead (54-46%); now Ken is two points ahead, by 51-49%. Allowing for sampling error, the race is too close to call.

Will others in the Westminster village and the commentariat now join Kellner in "changing" their minds? Will they now admit that Ken Livingstone has not just a chance but a fighting chance, a good chance, of winning May's mayoral contest? Up until this point, the "lazy assumption" - even among some centre-left journalists - has been that Boris Johnson will walk it, that he has the election sewn up. (Remember all those journalists and columnists who were so keen to crown Cameron as PM in 2009 and January-April 2010, and assume a landslide majority for the Tories was in the bag?)

YouGov's latest poll suggests that those of us who were sceptical about such claims had good reason to be. Admittedly, it's a single poll and there's all the usual stuff to note about outliers, rogues, sampling errors and the rest, but I suspect more and more polls will start reflecting Ken's start-of-the-year "surge" in the coming weeks.

As the Standard notes:

Moreover, the three issues that Londoners regard as most important are those that Mr Livingstone has campaigned hardest on: tackling crime (picked by 42 per cent), improving transport (41 per cent) and easing the cost of living (33 per cent). Only four per cent think promoting London abroad, a regular Boris theme, is a priority.

The energetic and focused Livingstone is hitting the right issues - and hitting them hard. There is a lesson for his party leader here: Ed Miliband shouldn't be trying to cover and campaign on every issue, in detail, all the time, but picking those few issues that voters care about and that Labour has leads over the Tories on - for example, jobs and the NHS - and hitting them hard, in speeches, interviews, photo-ops, etc, again and again and again.

There's also the intriguing issue of Livingstone's personality, his authenticity: in the modern political era, few candidates for high office are harmed by being themselves. In fact, the reverse is true.

Speaking of Ed Miliband, this latest poll will provide a much-needed boost for him and his aides too, after a horrid start to the year. If Livingstone wins against the odds in May, and London goes Labour, expect Miliband and his supporters to spin it as a victory for his leadership and his political agenda - and vote of no-confidence in David Cameron. If Ken loses to Boris, however, expect whispers about the future of Miliband's leadership to get louder. Much louder.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.