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21 December 2022

Is Labour getting tired of Sadiq Khan?

As the London mayor bids for a third term in 2024, party insiders fear he is vulnerable to a Tory challenge.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Sadiq Khan has been reselected as Labour’s candidate for the next London mayoral election in 2024, making him the first incumbent to run for a third term in City Hall. But Labour insiders fear that Khan’s bid could be derailed by a strong Tory challenge, with his clean-air drive and tax rises likely to come under scrutiny. 

The Conservatives have yet to select their candidate for the race. Samuel Kasumu, a former special adviser to Boris Johnson, intends to stand and has been endorsed by Richard Taylor, the father of Damilola Taylor, a ten-year-old boy who was stabbed in 2000.

The strength of the opposing Tory candidate is, however, just one risk factor Khan will have to contend with. The government’s voter ID reforms, which will require electors to show official identification before they cast their vote, could have a major impact on the Labour tally in the capital. There are an estimated 2.5 million people without a driver’s licence in London, for example.

The impact on black and minority ethnic voters, of which there is a greater proportion in London, could be large. Government data from 2020 shows that 24 per cent of white people in England do not hold a full driving licence, compared with 39 per cent of people of Asian ethnicity and 47 per cent of black people.

The mayoral election will also be held under first past the post, the electoral system used for general elections, rather than the supplementary vote, which allows electors to select their first and second preferences. This further increases the uncertainty around the election (Khan will no longer benefit from second preference votes from Green Party supporters, for instance). 

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Khan will also extend the ultra-low emission zone to all of London’s boroughs – it currently applies only to inner and central areas – in August next year; drivers of old, polluting cars will be charged £12.50 a day. Some fear that past Tory-leaning boroughs could turn against Labour because of this. But Lib Dem and Greens voters are likely to welcome Khan’s clean air plans.

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Meanwhile, the Mayor’s portion of council tax from the average London household will exceed £400 next year for the first time. Khan is expected to increase bills by £20 to fund Transport for London, among other services, in the wake of the post-pandemic slump in travel. But this may prove a difficult argument to win in the middle of the worst fall in household living standards since the Office for Budget Responsibility started keeping its records in 1956-57.

Crime is likely to be a central theme of the Tory campaign, given the high level of knife crime and violence in London – though Khan’s team point out he is investing in crime prevention, and that teen killings are down compared with last year, and overall homicides are lower than in any year since 2014.

[See also: Wes Streeting’s comments on health unions were “blatantly untrue”, says deputy BMA chair]

While Khan was reselected as Labour’s candidate with 96 per cent of the overall vote, trade unions and affiliated societies account for 50 per cent of that vote, suggesting there has been a small backlash among Labour grassroots members. At least two London branches – Leyton and Wanstead, and Tottenham – voted to trigger an open selection. Others, such as Lewisham Deptford, voted narrowly in favour of re-endorsing Khan.

“I’m more determined than ever to use all the experience and knowledge I’ve gained as Mayor to deliver on the issues that matter to Londoners, including supporting them through the cost-of-living crisis,” Khan said after the result, admitting it was “going to be a very tough election”.

In the 2021 election, Labour’s vote for the Greater London Authority (41.7 per cent) was slightly higher than the first preference votes for Khan (40 per cent). This was despite a series of gaffes by the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey, and CCHQ reportedly withdrawing funding for his campaign.

Separately, one Labour left source said the Mayor was still a “popular figure”, but that some parts of the party remain frustrated about how he “oriented towards the Corbyn leadership” and wanted the Mayor to be “stronger and broader on policy”. They added that “there are some CLPs [constituency labour parties] on the left who are probably relatively unimpressed. He is going for a third term but hasn’t set out a very bold vision for it.

“If you are looking at performance in 2021, especially when you are up against someone as poor as Shaun Bailey, there is a sense of: why go again for someone who hasn’t got much vision? But the elections in 2021 were not great across the board for Labour and it looks quite different now to how it looked then. And in terms of ‘princes across the water’, after 2021 Andy Burnham’s stock went up and Sadiq Khan’s went down.

“It’s perhaps for that reason that Sadiq is not seeking to go back into parliament. A lot now depends on whether the Tories clamber up and get a decent candidate.”

While the left activist group Momentum backed Khan over rent controls and his plan for a pilot scheme that would end the prosecution of young people caught with cannabis, some tensions remain. One is the Silvertown Tunnel, a 0.9-mile shaft under the Thames linking the Royal Docks and the North Greenwich peninsula, which members of Greenwich Council and Newham’s left-wing mayor Rokhsana Fiaz have environmental concerns over.

Khan’s prospectus for a third term may have to be more radical and eye-catching than before to rally his supporter base. Should he succeed in winning a third term, he will have surpassed his two predecessors, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, but there is potential for an upset.

[See also: Keir Starmer takes aim at Andy Burnham at Labour’s Christmas drinks]

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