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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.