Sadiq Khan, the MP for Tooting, has led his main rival, Conservative Zac Goldsmith, in opinion polls all year and bookmakers make him the firm favourite, with recent election results providing further grounds for confidence.
At last year’s general election Labour did far better in the capital than elsewhere, gaining seven parliamentary seats to take its total to 45 out of 73, while the Tories sustained a net loss of one. Labour controls 21 of the capital’s 32 borough councils. Not since Johnson won his second mayoral term in 2012 have the Conservatives got the better of Labour in London.
Hope for Goldsmith, the MP for Richmond Park, lies in the particular character of mayoral contests, and his party’s now traditional targeting of the outer London “doughnut”. Johnson won his first victory, in 2008, by mobilising suburban voters against the Labour incumbent, Ken Livingstone, and repeated the trick against the same opponent four years later.
Goldsmith is concentrating his efforts on boroughs such as Bromley, Bexley, Hillingdon and his home patch of Richmond, where support for him will be strong. Polls have suggested Khan is matching him in outer London as a whole while leading handsomely in inner London, so a suburban assault is vital for Goldsmith.
The “doughnut” was never blue all the way through and demographic change has reddened it largely due to demographic shifts, which have seen poverty rates and the percentage of minority ethnic residents, who tend to favour Labour, increase. Four of Labour’s general election gains were in outer London seats.
However, Goldsmith has been seeking to stir mistrust towards Khan as an individual. Leaflets and letters signed by David Cameron sent to groups of south Asian voters have alleged he is indifferent to issues concerning their countries of descent and is in league with Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in planning a wealth tax on their family jewellery. Critics have claimed this is a divisive “dog whistle” to Sikh and Hindu Londoners to reject Khan, a Muslim of Pakistani migrant parents.
Recent London borough byelection results have seen a slight increase in Labour’s vote share since Corbyn became leader. However, Goldsmith’s negative tactics, devised by close colleagues of Sir Lynton Crosby, the controversial election strategist who ran Johnson’s two mayoral campaigns, are designed to motivate electors to stop a “Khan-Corbyn experiment” with London.
Turnout will be a key factor. In 2012, it was a low 38.1% and may be lower still this time, with only the more committed placing their crosses. Analysis by London Communications Agency consultants, based on the 2014 European parliament elections, suggests a substantially larger Labour “London core vote” than Conservative.
They also stress that Labour’s vote share has been consistently higher than the Tories’ since 2012 – at the general election it was 44% compared with 35% – when only the “Boris factor” turned it around, and even in that year Labour did better than the Tories in the parallel London assembly vote.
Goldsmith seems unlikely to emulate Johnson’s crossover celebrity appeal and if Khan can maximise his big inner London advantage he will be difficult to beat even if the Tory pulls ahead in the “doughnut”. But Goldsmith, who unlike Khan is campaigning for Brexit, will hope for strong support from older voters and to scoop the lion’s share of second preference votes under the supplementary vote system from Ukip, which took 8% of the general election vote in London.
Both men will angle for secondary support from Green party and Liberal Democrat voters. The vote share of the Lib Dems, whose candidate is the assembly member Caroline Pidgeon, has gone up in London borough byelections by an average of 7% in the past year, while that of the Greens, whose mayoral candidate is the Camden councillor Sian Berry, has fallen by almost the same amount. These two and Ukip’s Peter Whittle are contesting third place in the mayoral race. There are many variables at play. There is still all to play for.
This article was written by Dave Hill, for theguardian.com on Sunday 17th April 2016 16.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010