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  1. Politics
  2. Labour
18 March 2024

Could Sadiq Khan lose?

The mayor’s team fears that a “perfect storm” could hand victory to Tory candidate Susan Hall.

By George Eaton

One of Sadiq Khan’s proudest boasts is that he has never lost an election. “I’m a winner, I never lose,” he told his team when he entered the race to become Labour’s London mayoral candidate in 2015, recounting how he had won every contest he had fought since standing to be a school class rep at the age of 11.

But as Khan seeks an unprecedented third term as mayor he is haunted by the spectre of defeat. He and his team privately fear that the London election on 2 May will be far closer than most believe – a message that Khan will reaffirm at his campaign launch with Keir Starmer today.

At first this resembles classic expectation management – the ritual that all parties indulge in with the aim of motivating turnout and ensuring favourable coverage of the eventual result. A YouGov poll last month put Khan 25 points ahead of his Conservative rival Susan Hall. But the mayor’s aides insist that a “perfect storm” of factors could oust him from City Hall.

A recent private presentation to Labour councillors and others, shared with the New Statesman, illustrates the nightmare scenario that they describe. The first slide highlights a fact that has attracted little attention: the mayoral election will be fought under the first-past-the-post system (FPTP). Unlike in previous contests, voters will no longer be able to rank two candidates in order of preference.


Labour fears that Khan could be the biggest loser from this change. Back in 2021, he beat the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey by 10.4 points once second-preference votes from Liberal Democrat and Green supporters had been transferred. But in the first round, he led Bailey by just 4.7 points – a result that surprised commentators who had dismissed the gaffe-prone Tory as a no-hoper.

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Khan’s aides complain that the Conservatives have done little to inform Londoners of the change in the voting system – with the result that some may vote Lib Dem or Green by default and realise too late that they cannot also support Khan. 

The change in the voting system, introduced by Boris Johnson’s government in 2021 for all mayoral elections, was widely interpreted as an attempt to tilt the odds in the Tories’ favour. Early evidence suggests it may have worked. In last year’s Bedford mayoral election – the first to be fought under FPTP – Conservative candidate Tom Wootton defeated the Liberal Democrat incumbent Dave Hodgson by 0.3 percentage points (33.1 per cent to 32.8 per cent). Four years earlier, Labour and Green second preferences gave the Lib Dems an eight-point lead in the final round.

The second rule change that troubles Khan is the introduction of compulsory voter ID. While this did not prevent a comfortable Labour victory at last year’s local elections, the mayor’s team fear it could be a different story in London. Its internal polling shows that 15 per cent of Londoners lack the necessary voter ID (such as a driver’s licence or passport), including 20 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds and 22 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi voters – groups disproportionately likely to support Khan. Indeed, Labour estimates that this measure alone could cost Khan five points, enough to overturn his first-round victory against Bailey in 2021.


The third factor that threatens Khan is voter apathy and complacency. In the final pre-election polls in 2021, he led by as much as 19 points in the first round, but finished far closer to Bailey. Polls that imply the race is a foregone conclusion could deter the voters Khan needs. Without the boost that a general election would have provided, Labour fears that turnout could fall below 40 per cent, “disproportionately impacting our vote”. 

Dave Hill, the editor of the OnLondon website, agreed that Hall had a “narrow route to victory”, citing the shift towards first-past-the-post, the introduction of voter ID and Khan’s slim first-round victory over Bailey. Mayoral aides also emphasise that winning a third term – unlike the two-term Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone – is a tougher proposition. One adviser recalled Labour’s 2005 election victory, when the party received the lowest vote share of any majority government in history (35.2 per cent), and Michael Bloomberg’s narrow third victory in New York in 2009 (a four-point margin). 


To the recurrent question “what has Sadiq actually done?”, the mayor’s team argues that he has a genuine record of achievement, including the introduction of free school meals for all primary school pupils, a fifth freeze in Transport for London fares, the highest number of council home starts since the 1970s and the launch of the Night Tube and the Elizabeth Line. At his campaign launch today, Khan will promise to deliver 40,000 new council homes by the end of the decade. But his team acknowledges that he is seeking re-election in a less hospitable political climate – only 27 per cent of Londoners are satisfied with his performance as mayor, compared with 45 per cent who are dissatisfied (a net approval rating of -18).

Yet the mayor is not the only one with challenges. His Tory rival, Susan Hall, represents a party that has never been less popular in London, a city where it easily out-polled Labour under Margaret Thatcher. The most recent YouGov poll put the Conservatives on just 17 per cent in the capital to Labour’s 52 per cent. Hall, a right-wing Tory London Assembly member and former councillor, has done nothing to differentiate herself from her party’s increasingly toxic national brand.

In view of this, some inside Labour believe Khan has little to fear. “We’re in a strong position in London. The Tories’ numbers are very down and they have a weak candidate. The fundamentals are very much in our favour,” said one senior source. The electoral rule changes were “completely irrelevant” when set against the tide of public opinion.

Labour has pounced on Hall’s gaffes – she admitted in a recent LBC interview that she did not know the price of a bus fare or the starting salary of a police officer – and on her reactionary proclivities. Hall liked a Twitter post depicting Enoch Powell with the caption “it’s never too late to get London back!”, and another referring to Khan as the “mayor of Londonistan”. In 2020, she tweeted: “Come on Donald Trump – make sure you win and wipe the smile off this man [Khan’s] face.”

Not only will Hall struggle to attract Lib Dem and Green supporters, she faces competition for the right-wing vote from Reform UK, which stood at 7 per cent in the most recent poll and has since recruited its first MP in Lee Anderson.

Against this electoral backdrop, the question many ask is not “could Khan lose?” but “how can he not win?” And it is precisely this cosy consensus that Labour fears could lead to Susan Hall becoming the accidental mayor on 2 May.

[See also: Will Diane Abbott regain the Labour whip?]

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