Christabel Cooper: How can the Conservatives win the London mayoralty again?

Christabel Cooper: How can the Conservatives win the London mayoralty again?

The result of the London mayoral election was never in doubt, although Sadiq Khan’s victory was less emphatic than many had expected. Turnout was down on the 2016 election (falling from 46 per cent to 42 per cent) whereas in other mayoral elections across the country it increased: Khan’s narrower-than-expected margin of victory may have partly been down to Labour supporters assuming that their presence was not needed at the polls in order for Khan to win. 

Historically, neither Labour nor the Conservatives dominated the capital’s politics – control of the Greater London Council swung back and forth between the parties  between 1965 and its abolition in 1985, and the mayoralty has changed political hands too. Traditionally, affluence has been strongly linked to voting Conservative and deprivation strongly linked to voting Labour, and so London – a city where extreme wealth and poverty rub shoulders on a daily basis – was a keenly-contested battleground between the parties.

But more recently, British politics has become strongly influenced by the conflict between social liberals and social conservatives, particularly over the issue of immigration. The EU referendum helped formalise this divide and people now identify more strongly as a Remainer or as a Leaver than they do with any political party. Given that younger people and graduates were more likely to support Remain it was not a surprise that a majority of Londoners (which has a younger than average age and a higher than average number of graduates) voted to stay in the EU.

The process of Remain voters gravitating away from the Conservatives and Leave voters gravitating away from Labour, which has been so problematic for Labour in some parts of the North and Midlands, has been beneficial to the party in London. In his analysis of the London elections, Lewis Baston highlights the correlation between boroughs where Khan did well and those that heavily voted to Remain. So, given that the demographics are against them, can the Tories win again in London? The answer may depend on how they address a group of important factors.

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Will changing the voting system help them? The next mayoral contest will take place under a First Past The Post system (FPTP), which should benefit the Conservatives. The left-leaning vote tends to split its first preferences between several parties, but the supplementary vote system allows Labour to consolidate those first preference votes votes with second preferences (This happened in the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough mayoral election too, resulting in a dramatic win for Labour’s Nik Johnson despite his receiving fewer first preference votes than his Conservative rival).

That said, changing the voting system is also likely to change the way some people vote. In particular, it will encourage those who have previously given their first preference to an Independent or smaller party and used their second preference to affect whether the Mayor is Labour or Conservative – the top two candidates in every London Mayor contest so far – to instead cast their single vote for a candidate from one of the main parties instead.

Khan gained over twice as many second preference votes on 6 May as his Tory challenger Shaun Bailey. Londoners’ overall preference was very clearly for a Labour Mayor, and this might also be reflected under FPTP in future.

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Will Traffic issues prove damaging for Labour? One major achievement of Khan’s first term was the introduction of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) in Central London. But this, together with the adoption of new Low Traffic Neighbourhoods by a number of London boroughs, especially Labour ones, has created a perception among some car-users that London is now a hostile environment for motorists. Anecdotally, Labour canvassers reported that Khan was losing some support because of traffic issues and with ULEZ greatly expanding in October, there is the potential for the Conservatives to further exploit disquiet among motorists. 

However, polling suggests that such traffic measures are not generally unpopular. A survey for the Evening Standard in April found that 51 per cent of Londoners approved of the ULEZ extension with only 33 per cent opposed and Redfield and Wilton found that around half of Londoners support Low Traffic Neighbourhoods with only 16 per cent opposing them. The Tories will need to win over current Labour voters to win the mayoralty, yet Labour voters in London are less likely to have cars and are therefore less likely to be enraged by policies designed to reduce car use. 

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Picking a candidate who can reach across the cultural divide. Bailey was widely regarded as a poor candidate. Despite his being a Leave supporter with a history of making derogatory comments about single mothers and a plethora of ethnic and religious groups, the Conservatives seemed to believe that Bailey’s being black would compensate for this in the eyes of liberal voters, much as they thought the environmental credentials of Zac Goldsmith would in 2016. But again, they were mistaken. 

Ironically, given his current incarnation as a hard Brexit-supporting, authoritarian Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was a better template for the kind of Conservative mayoral candidate who can successfully appeal to both liberal and socially conservative voters. Johnson’s Euroscepticism and his aversion to “political correctness” were evident from his journalism, but he balanced this with support for immigration – a hugely resonant subject in a city where a third of the residents were born abroad. He was fortunate in being elected some years before before the EU referendum.

A Remain supporter such as Justine Greening, who left the Conservatives in 2019, would have been be a better candidate than Bailey. But if Brexit identities continue to be meaningful and if the Leave label continues to be strongly associated with Conservatism, even a Tory Remainer might struggle to appeal to Londoners who voted to stay in the EU.

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The Mayor as regional champion. In general, local government elections tend to go badly for the governing national party and the Tories may find it easier to win London in future if Labour is in power nationally. But this may be changing. The stunning electoral success of Ben Houchen, the Tory mayor of Tees Valley who scrapped in by two per cent in 2017 yet won by 40 per cent in 2021, is partly due to the perception that he had been able to influence his fellow Conservatives in government to direct investment towards Teesside.

The other big mayoral success this year was Labour’s Andy Burnham, winning again in Greater Manchester. His  well-publicised stand-off with the government last autumn over Covid compensation ended without receiving the extra money he wanted. But what he and Houchen have in common is that they are seen as leaders who put the interests of their region first.

Houchen effectively nationalised a struggling local airport in 2018, demonstrating a greater affinity with economically left-leaning voters in the North East than with traditional right-wing Conservative supporters. A successful Tory candidate in London would need to be equally prepared to stand up for the values of the capital regardless of Conservative orthodoxies. 

The problems the Conservatives face in London are the mirror image of those Labour faces in much of the rest of England, where demographics work in the Conservatives’ favour. Yet in Wales, which overall voted Leave, Labour did well in the local elections, having branded itself distinctly as “Welsh Labour”.

The challenge for both Labour and the Tories in areas where the demographics are against them is to find candidates who are capable of signalling across the culture divide and who can adopt a distinctly regional identity, representing the particular characteristics of an area and pushing for its material interests – if necessary against the prevailing currents in their own parties.

Adopting such an approach in London would make the Conservatives more competitive here – just as Labour doing so elsewhere could make them more competitive in other parts of the UK.

Christabel Cooper is a data analyst and a Labour councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham. Follow Christabel on Twitter.

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Categories: Analysis

3 Comments

  1. Philip Virgo says:

    The challenge for both Conservative and Labour is to find policies that appeal to that majority of Londoners who are “loyal” to neither as opposed to those which fit the prejudices of their party activists and interests of their paymasters (including current/would-be outsource contractors, public sector trades unions and property developers).

  2. Kyle Harrison says:

    It’s easy to presume that Labour’s success is down to social attitudes and Brexit. But Labour have been fairly dominant in London for the last 20 years.

    Many Londoners, even in the more so called middle class areas, often face very high living costs, high rents, big mortgages… So in truth even people that make decent money don’t feel that well off. I think the increasing lack of prosperity for Londoners hurts the Tories in London.

    If you look at places that are genuinely affluent they still often return Tory councillors or MPs. Chelsea is a liberal place but is still firmly Tory. But many other areas where you have more ordinary middle class, often their pay doesn’t compensate much for high living costs.

  3. MilesT says:

    The current mayoralty could be a poisoned chalice for Khan and Labour, in that a number of impactful changes are likely to sway floating voters who might have voted Labour next time.

    Unforced error: a poorly constructed ULEZ extension: As far as I can work out, just vacating a parking bay on demand of a suspension makes you liable for daily charge, cost of replacement vehicles to avoid the charge, and those with good enough credit to be able to engage in autopay will only pay when they pass a camera, others will need to always pay just in case. And you have to pay to drive the vehicle to be scrapped. I agree with the goals of ULEZ, but the implementation needs adjustment for rationality and fairness, and softening transition.

    Forced error (mostly): TFL finances leading to reduction in bus routes, frequency, and underground/overground/TfL rail frequency (and fare increases)

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