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Quiet countdown to Khan's third term?

London City
Public Affairs
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london mayor

A while ago I saw an Evening Standard headline at a train station: “Mayoral race: 100 days to go”. I did a double-take. I confess I’d completely forgotten. It is, of course, only three years after the delayed 2020 election. But it’s also been very low-key. Since Susan Hall – probably the least well-known of the potential candidates – was selected for the Conservatives last July, there have been a few ULEZ set pieces but not much broad impact. 

With less than a month to go, media and ‘politico’ interest still appears low. This might be partly a result of a busy news agenda – various wars and the PM’s chances of survival to the next election (and the date of that election) dominate, but it must also be a result of the polling indicating a less-than-competitive election. This week Sadiq Khan was on 44 percent and Susan Hall on 26 percent. With such a commanding lead, Khan has no need to take risks, and he hasn’t.

Labour’s message is partly that the polls are not to be believed and it is all much closer than it seems. They have a point. The lead appears to be falling slightly. This year it’s a First-Past-The-Post vote for the first time, and the unfancied Shaun Bailey was within five percent last time round, with a more comfortable Labour lead emerging once second preference votes were transferred. There’s a squeeze on to pick up voters inclined toward Lib Dems or Green, but who would vote Labour tactically to “keep the Tories out” – when I was a councillor in Haringey, a few wards in the west of the borough reliably returned Lib Dem councillors, but reverted to red (or red/blue split) in the mayoral and GLA elections. On that note, the Greens have surely replaced the Lib Dems as the third party and will want something between 10 and 15 percent from the mayoral vote.

The bookies usually have good instincts on where things are going (they have a lot riding on it after all). Always better to consult Oddschecker rather than a ‘political commentator’ with a point to prove. 1/33 would seem very comfortable for Khan, with Hall at 10-1, which in a two-horse race is nowhere. By comparison, Sam Tarry MP, Boris Johnson, and Jeremy Corbyn MP appear to be 33/1 despite not being on the list. London is not like the rest of the country: one does wonder what the result would be if Corbyn was running as an independent à la Ken Livingstone in 2000.

I expect Khan to win at a cantor, with the margin based on the mood music more than the ‘issues’ or the ‘record’. But maybe that’s my inner-London bias showing. The Hall strategy certainly is to concentrate on the outer ring of the ‘doughnut’, where culturally and economically, things look a lot different. The mood music should be too much to bear, however, and just staying in touch will be a job well done.
If the mayoral race doesn’t surprise us, is there any prospect of big change in the London Assembly vote? In fact, the electoral system works against big changes. The Additional Member System which gives us the ‘London-wide’ members as a ‘top-up’ keeps things more representative of party support in percentage terms. So it was that when Leonie Cooper flipped Merton and Wandsworth to Labour in 2016, the Party was punished with losing one London-wide member, and it remained on 12 out of 25. In this way, the seat shares have remained remarkably stable among the main parties.

Labour will remind its voters that voter apathy only helps this unpopular government but will likely be the beneficiary of Conservatives staying at home. While Labour’s most marginal constituency Ealing and Hillingdon was heading in the wrong direction for them in 2021, we think it should be more comfortable this time given improved Hillingdon prospects and the weighing of the votes that should happen in Ealing.

Most Assembly constituencies have good enough majorities and experienced incumbents, but there are Conservatives at threat. In the South West constituency, the collapse of the Conservatives in the 2022 locals in Kingston and Richmond could prefigure handing the seat to the Lib Dems (tactical voting may help here too). West Central (Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea, and Hammersmith & Fulham) is also a weak point – which won’t be helped out by Hall’s outer ring cultural strategy. Tony Devenish held on by 2,225 last time out. The Conservatives' vote percentage held up remarkably well in these boroughs in 2022, even while losing control in Westminster. But it's easy to forget how much has happened since then. Liz Truss was prime minister by September that year, remember.