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.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.