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8 October 2018

Shaun Bailey is running out of Londoners to offend

A fortnight in and it is hard to see who in the capital Bailey is hoping to win over. 

By Stephen Bush

What votes is Shaun Bailey planning to win in the London mayoral contest? His candidacy is not yet a fortnight old and his past remarks and his present-day handling of them are already narrowing his chances of pulling off an upset and defeating Sadiq Khan in 2020.

The latest double-whammy, unearthed by Business Insider and the Observer respectively: saying that the government needed to stop saying it was “acceptable” to be a single mother and that it was a “cottage industry” for young girls to get pregnant in order to claim benefits and get on the housing ladder.

As far as public policy goes, Bailey is just plain wrong. The rate of teen pregnancy fell consistently under the last Labour government and has continued to fall under this one. (Whether this is about successful social policy interventions, changing cultural mores and behaviour among teens or a combination of the two is a matter for another time.) The proportion of the population born to single parent families has remained static at around 25 per cent of the population over the same period – a touch lower than the proportion at the beginning of the 1990s, so if anything government criticism of lone parents increases the number of lone parents. (It doesn’t. Talking about single parents in an unpleasant way has no repercussions on the number of single parents. It just makes the person doing it look like a terrible person.) 

Electorally speaking, the idea that women and girls are “getting pregnant to get a council house” has a powerful electoral currency, particularly, it has to be said, on housing estates, despite the fact that it has never really been true and it is even less so now. The reason why it has retreated from political view now is that it isn’t in Labour’s electoral interests to criticise the Conservatives for failing to tackle this non-existent problem. My guess is that, should the Tories leave office again, suddenly a section of that party will discover that teen pregnancy on estates is a real problem, even if the rate of teen pregnancies continues its long decline.

The trouble for Bailey is that it is also electorally repulsive to two groups: the first, of course, are lone parent households and people who are the product of them, but the second, and significantly bigger as far as the population of London is concerned, are socially liberal people.

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So two weeks in the Conservatives have a mayoral candidate who has offended Hindu voters, a group that Zac Goldsmith actually did fairly well with and Bailey must hold onto to even do as well as Goldsmith did. He has further damaged the Tory party’s standing with socially liberal voters – a group Goldsmith did poorly with and the Conservatives must get back into contention with if they are to hold what they have, let alone equal Boris Johnson’s performances in city-wide elections.

And he’s not saying anything that is going to win over any of London’s voters who have reliably backed anti-Conservative candidates in the past: he is aggravating the party’s problem with Muslim voters and it is not clear what he is offering to working class voters in inner London beyond his biography.

Of course these remarks are all coming to light two years before the election, but you better believe that Khan’s campaign is going to make sure that the relevant voters hear about them again and again.

Time may already be running out for Bailey if he is to avoid turning the London election into a humiliating end for his political career.

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