The nightmare that's haunting Sadiq Khan - and cheering Zac Goldsmith

The memory of 2015 provides hope to Zac Goldsmith - and fear for Sadiq Khan. 

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“Politicians,” the American diplomant John Bolton once observed, are “like generals – they tend to fight the last war.”

It’s the last war that is haunting many in Sadiq Khan’s campaign and giving hope to Zac Goldsmith’s team – that, just as the polls forecast a win for Ed Miliband but the voters delivered a majority for David Cameron, the polls putting Khan on course for a landslide victory will be proved wrong – and Goldsmith will be crowned mayor instead.

The campaign even follows a similar script – on the one hand, you have an OId Etonian, widely criticised for running a low-energy campaign, against a politician from Labour’s soft left. Just as the Conservatives use the fear of a Labour-SNP to hammer Labour and their own coalition partners, Goldsmith is now using Khan’s decision to nominate Jeremy Corbyn and a series of politicians who Khan has shared a platform with to attack Labour’s mayoral candidate. And the drip-drip of hostile headlines from the Evening Standard may further eat into Khan’s vote share – yesterday, the paper splashed with Cameron’s warning that “Britain would pay the price” should Labour triumph in London.

Will it work? That, as with most second-order elections, turnout will be key, means that going into the final straight in possession of a double-digit lead is a double-edged sword  for Khan. His voters may be more likely to give it miss on polling day – however, Khan has – at least according to the polls – a big cushion.

Labour’s field organisers are worried about turnout but nothing to the extent of the jitters that spread through the party in the last days of the general election. Their fear largely comes out of a respect for their Conservative opponents. That instead of abandoning their attacks on Khan in the face of criticism from across the political spectrum, the Goldsmith campaign has doubled down only adds to the worry. As one puts it: “I don’t think that Zac Goldsmith is a racist. I don’t think he’s a fool. So I ask myself: why is he running a racist campaign? It must be because it’s working.”

On the Conservative side, though they reject the idea that their campaign is behaving in an untoward manner, they maintain a confidence that runs counter to public polls putting them on course for a crushing defeat.

So will it be 2015 over again? My sense is that it’s unlikely – the Conservative campaign that “the SNP are coming” had the advantage of being an undeniable truth – that if Ed Miliband had taken office, he would have done so on the backs of votes from SNP MPs, as at no point did the polls – or Labour’s ground game – indicate that he was aiming for a big enough victory in England to compensate for the losses of 41 seats in Scotland. And in Cameron, the Tories already had a politician with an existing brand. He was able to present himself as the solution to the “problem” of a Miliband-government propped up by the SNP.

However, the idea that Khan is “radical” or “extreme” simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  He is firmly middle-of-the-road on most issues. Goldsmith, unlike Cameron, does not have a well-known pre-existing brand – even where he succeeds in whipping up fears around Khan, I’m not sure he’s established enough as a force to be the obvious “answer” to the problem of Khan.

And in mistaking attacking his opponent for building a majority for himself, it is not Cameron’s election campaign Goldsmith is emulating – but Miliband’s.

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.

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