Is the London mayoral race over before it starts?

The Conservative candidate, Shaun Bailey, is facing a crushing defeat to Sadiq Khan – and that’s no surprise. 

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The latest set of capital-wide polling from the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University is out, and it makes for jaw-dropping reading. In the race – if that word can be used in this context – to be London’s next mayor, the incumbent, Sadiq Khan, is well ahead of the pack, with 55 per cent of the vote compared to his nearest challenger, the Conservatives’ Shaun Bailey, who is on 28 per cent. If repeated at the 2020 mayoral election, this would make Khan the first politician to win outright in the first round of a London mayoral contest.

Are the figures believable? Well, Labour polled 44 per cent of the vote in London’s local elections in May, although that number was probably flattened slightly because the election campaigns on both sides focussed on a handful of winnable contests in Barnet, Hillingdon, Westminster and Wandsworth. We know, too, that Khan is more popular than the Labour brand so we would expect him to do a little better than the party more broadly, who according to this poll are currently at 49 per cent in the capital. So it fits.

As for Bailey, his candidacy was almost immediately overshadowed by the remarks he made about British Hindus. Hindu voters have been the backbone of Conservative mayoral candidates in the past and without their votes, the Tory position in the capital would be even worse. In addition, some of the voters that the Conservatives attracted in 2016 undoubtedly disliked the idea of an ethnic minority mayor – Bailey, who is black, has no hope of holding onto those votes either. There are plenty of reasons to believe that he will do worse than we’d expect a generic Conservative to do, which fits with what we see in this survey, with the Tories on 33 per cent across the capital, five points ahead of Bailey.

The Conservatives in London have a number of problems that no candidate can easily fix: they are the party of Brexit, which most Londoners oppose, and a Conservative government is expanding Heathrow, which is also the subject of fierce opposition in the capital, particularly in areas where Tory candidates usually do fairly well. In Bailey, they have aggravated the problem in a number of ways: nobody has heard of him, which means that he cannot easily escape the Tory party’s overall brand problems. He has criticised British Hindus, an essential part of the Conservative coalition in London, and in a way that further repulses social liberals, with whom they must improve if they are to start winning contests in the capital again. All in all: why wouldn’t he go down to crushing defeat?

Is it game over? Well, the election is almost two years away. There is plenty that could happen over the next two years to upend the race. But bluntly it is hard to see, given Bailey’s near systematic attempts to alienate London’s swing voters and his maladroit handling of that row, if he has the political skillset to take advantage of any good fortune that fate throws his way. Optimistic Conservatives will hope that the delay to the Elizabeth Line’s opening, and the resulting squeeze on Transport for London’s budget, will hurt Khan’s chances. But London mayors have tended to do a pretty good job of deflecting blame for budget pressures onto central government and you’d be very brave to bet against Khan doing the same.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Khan ends up failing to win on the first round though, but that might well also mean that Bailey does worse than these polls suggest. If I were Sian Berry, the Green candidate, or Siobhan Benita, the Liberal Democrat candidate, I would be running hard on a platform that essentially said “this election is over: the only way to send a clear message isn’t to vote for a failed Conservative candidate but to back me to show you dislike Brexit and/or Heathrow”, two issues which the Conservative core vote in London dislikes and may be willing to back a third party to protest against. That message might pull votes away from both candidates. But a carbon-copy of this poll can’t be ruled out – and the bad news for Bailey is that might be the optimistic scenario.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.