How much trouble is Sadiq Khan's re-election bid in?

The Mayor of London's path to re-election is more fraught than commonly supposed. 

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Are Sadiq Khan’s hopes of re-election in jeopardy? The Mayor of London’s approval ratings have slumped to minus three, well below the net 30 per cent approval rating he had when he took office.

The London Conservatives are claiming that the rise in knife crime is behind the increase, but I’m unconvinced: polls consistently show that large majorities of Londoners believe that the rise in knife crime is the result of decisions taken nationally, not in the capital.

Given that knife crime and all types of crime are rising across the country, it’s hard not to conclude that Londoners have a point, but, as Patrick has noted, really, most Conservative attacks on Khan aren’t designed to win over people in London, but to appeal to voters outside of it.

But it seems unlikely in the extreme that Khan’s approval ratings are slumping because of something that most London voters don’t blame him for. It feels more likely – and perhaps more troubling for Khan – that the slump is about other things.

That Khan’s path to re-election might be trickier than expected isn’t that surprising: all of the evidence in 2016 was that, outside of his home constituency of Tooting and among London’s Jewish constituency, he did no better or worse than a generic Labour candidate that year, and was fortunate to be running in a city rich in the type of voters (the working poor, graduates, social liberals and ethnic minorities) that have moved towards Labour in recent years, a movement that accelerated in the first two years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Now that movement has gone into sharp reverse in both the polls and the local and European elections. Khan hasn’t done very much in office and hasn’t managed to carve out a truly separate city-wide brand from the Labour Party. It seems much more likely that the lack of a visible agenda and a general decline in Labour’s fortunes are behind the drop in his approval, rather than knife crime.

It highlights two important facts about the London mayoral race: there is no reason to believe that he will be immune from the general ebbing of Labour support  and in fact there is good reason to think it could be more serious for him than for Corbyn.

Why? Well because in a general election, there is good reason to believe that thanks to our iniquitous electoral system and Boris Johnson’s toxicity among social liberals, Labour will be able to successfully get enough Liberal Democrat and Green voters to switch back to them, at least tactically, to stop a Johnson government.

Bluntly, there is not a great level of fear – or even frankly awareness that he exists – of Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate. Added to that, that both Sian Berry, the Green candidate, who finished third last time, and Siobhan Benita, the Liberal Democrat candidate, will be able to credibly claim that they can win the contest, rather than let the Tories in, makes it much harder for Khan to squeeze the rising third and fourth parties.  

Of course, there are two important caveats to note. The first is that the extreme likelihood is that the mayoral election will have happened after at least one of the following things have happened: a no-deal Brexit or an election, either of which you would expect to change the political atmosphere. 

The second is that Khan’s great asset is that the same fragmentation that complicates his path to re-election also means it is unclear who will benefit – is it Sian Berry? Is it Siobhan Benita? Is it Shaun Bailey? That confusion may well now be Khan’s biggest asset.

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.