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  1. Election 2024
8 April 2015

On the road with Sadiq Khan

Stephen Bush joins Sadiq Khan on the London Labour battle bus.

By Stephen Bush

Sadiq Khan is worried. Very worried. Ed Miliband’s battle bus is zipping up and down the country, but there’s just one problem:  it doesn’t have a toilet.

“I’d want a loo, wouldn’t you?” he says. London Labour’s battle bus – or, more accurately, a sleek blue minivan with Labour decals – doesn’t have a toilet either, but, one assumes, won’t be taking to Britain’s long motorways anytime soon. Instead, the bus will be zipping around London’s marginal seats – Labour is targeting twelve seats in the capital and defending Hampstead & Kilburn and Harrow East  from the Conservatives – from now until the election.

Along for the ride today are Khan himself,  a smattering of Labour activists, and two members of the London Assembly, Val Shawcross and Tom Copley. Shawcross and Copley are Labour’s lead representatives in City Hall on transport and housing respectively and they talk shop while the van splutters into life.  

City Hall is the end of Khan’s – who is responsible for managing Labour’s campaign in London – “three-year plan”; local and European elections in 2014, the general election in 2015, and the mayoral race in 2016. The first part went off without a hitch – the local elections in London were the party’s best results since 1974, including breakthrough results in its target seats. As for the third part, the battle to be Labour’s candidate looks to be a far tougher fight than the two-party tussle in 2016.

2015, however, is a somewhat trickier prospect. Khan tells me that, before the SNP surge, “we would have been fine with six. Now we need all 12”. Some of those look like easy pickings. Brent Central, held by the Liberal Democrats since 2004, is a near one-party state for Labour at a council level and the party expects to easily take the seat in May. But others are trickier. The team has spent the morning leafleting Underground stations in Simon Hughes’ constituency. Hughes – who one activist describes as “vicious” is well dug-in and the seat is one of Labour’s toughest fights in the city.

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We are on route to another hard fight, in Battersea. Once a Labour stronghold, the seat shifted right in 1987, as young, upwardly mobile voters moved into the constituency and is one of the party’s most ambitious targets in the capital.

Most of the council housing in the borough has been sold off, and what little is left smells strongly of neglect. The stairwells of the Winstanley Estate, where we are canvassing, have a dusty smell. Will Martindale, the Labour candidate, tells me about another nearby estate, the Patmore, where the damp has grown so bad in some council lets that there are silverfish living in the walls.

Martindale – a young father and former banker who now works for the United Nations – was selected over two years ago. Khan explains how the party deliberately selected candidates early to put rocketboosters under their local campaign. Residents have felt neglected, not just by the current government.  “But now we’ve knocked up this block countless times,” Khan tells me, “So almost everyone has heard from us, three to four times.”

As well as benefiting from having a standard-bearer to rally around, Labour’s candidates, like the city itself, are young – both the city’s people, and the party’s candidates, have an average age of 34. Membership is up in London, which was part of the reason why the part did so well in the elections last year as well.

But despite that, and a series of voter registration drives the party has organised in recent years, registration on the estate is still low. That impacts not only the result but the battlefield, as constituencies are allocated not on population but representation. Khan says that registration should be opt-out, and that registering for an MOT, a TV licence or a social let should automatically add you to the electoral register. He points, sadly, at the doors that will not be knocked on today – “We’ve spoken to them before, but they’re not registered, and when it’s this close…”

Focus narrows this close to polling day. Martindale, who only recently became a father, spends his days on the doorstep and any free time with his daughter “and my iPhone on airplane mode”. The conversations on the doorstep, too, have a smaller focus. Will they vote? If they’re voting Conservative, why? If they’re voting for a smaller party, can they be squeezed? And if they’re Labour, how likely is it that they will turn out on the day?

Khan, who is close to Ed Miliband personally as well as politically, feels the pressure keenly, but, as one of the party’s happy warriors, is in good spirits.

“It feels good to be out here,” he says, “It’s much better than sitting at a desk.”

An earlier version of this article said that the freepost for postal votes had been cut in Wandsworth. We apologise for the error.

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