Ken takes the lead over Boris

New poll puts Livingstone ahead of Johnson in London mayoral race by 45 per cent to 43.

Don't bet against Red Ken returning to City Hall in 2012. The latest YouGov poll on the London mayoral race puts the Labour candidate ahead of Boris on first preferences by 45 per cent to 43. By contrast, an earlier poll published in October showed Boris ahead by 46 per cent to 44.

The significant support for Livingstone suggests that his age (he will turn 67 in June 2012) and his political baggage aren't necessarily barriers to his re-election. There are still other candidates to come, not least from the Greens and the Lib Dems, who could cut into Ken's vote, but this poll will reassure Labour that it made the right choice.

As on previous occasions, the result is almost certain to be determined by second-preference votes. Asked who they would rather have as mayor – a question that aims to reflect second preferences – voters still favour Boris by 45 per cent to 42, although his lead has narrowed from 5 points in October.

In the coming months we can expect Boris to do even more to try to differentiate himself from Cameron and Osborne. As I noted last week, growing opposition to the speed and scale of the coalition's cuts means Labour's poll lead has widened from 3-5 points to 7-9 points. Boris's challenge is to achieve what Ken could not and prove that national unpopularity is no barrier to local success.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.