The contest to become the Conservative candidate for London Mayor is underway, with minister for London Paul Scully, London Assembly members Andrew Boff and Susan Hall and others having thrown their hats into the ring. Whoever secures the nomination in July will be hoping to exploit Sadiq Khan’s controversial plan to further expand of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and expect the change in the voting system from Supplementary Vote to to First Past the Post (FPTP) to help them.
To take the new electoral system first, in the May 2021 mayoral election Khan’s first round lead over his Tory rival Shaun Bailey was far narrower than expected (40 per cent to 35 per cent) and his final margin of victory rose to 10 per cent only because he picked up more second preference votes those who had voted for the Green and Liberal Democrat candidates in the first round. This might suggest that under FPTP the non-Tory vote in London will split between Labour and the two smaller parties and allow a Conservative candidate to come through the middle and win, an assessment seemingly reinforced by a surge in support for the Lib Dems and Greens in the local elections held in much of the rest of England last month.
But is that necessarily the case? The first corrective to this view is a look at national opinion polls. At the time of the last mayoral election the Conservatives were seven points ahead of Labour following the successful rollout of the Covid vaccine. Today, by contrast, Labour has an average 15-point lead over the Tories. In May 2021 London voters gave Labour an 18 point lead according to YouGov. Now, the same pollster puts Labour 40 points ahead. All polling evidence shows that the Conservative brand has suffered serious damage, and in the absence of a character like Boris Johnson, who successfully developed a personal brand independent of the central Conservative party, any Tory candidate for London Mayor is going to be tarnished by it.
But what about that rise in support for the Lib Dems and Greens last month? This followed both improving their vote shares in the Mayoral and London Assembly elections in 2021. Could they be on track to take more votes from Labour next May, this time under a system that does not allow their voters to make second preference choice?
It is worth looking more closely at the results of those May 2023 local results. At Labour Together, for which I am director of research, we carried out polling which showed that over one fifth of the Lib Dem votes were tactical, and that nearly a quarter of those who voted for the party say that in a general election they would vote Labour. This shows that anti-Tory voters proved adept at supporting whichever party was likely to beat the Conservatives. For instance, in councils contested between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, Labour only increased its number of councillors by 69, with the Lib Dems winning 214 more councillors. But in councils contested between Conservative and Labour, Labour won 335 additional seats and the Lib Dems only 48 more.
Of course, tactical voting can go very wrong when voters are unclear about who is the best candidate to vote for is – ask any 2019 pro-EU voter in Kensington. But there will be little such doubt in the minds of progressive voters in London, that the high-profile Khan is the only candidate who can beat the Tory. Far from suggesting the anti-Tory vote is uniformly split, the local elections demonstrated that even under FPTP voters whose priority is to punish the Tories can organise themselves to back the party or candidate most likely to achieve that.
But what about the ULEZ? Recent polling commissioned by More in Common showed that a narrow majority of Londoners support the scheme, but that views were very split along the lines of the 2019 general election vote. Labour voters backed the ULEZ enlargement by 40 per cent to 33 per cent, and Lib Dem voters and Green voters were even more strongly in support – Lib Dems by 42 per cent to 33 per cent, Greens by 49 per cent to 27 per cent. For progressive voters, the expansion of ULEZ may end up being more of a benefit than a problem for Khan.
The incumbent might have more to fear from Londoners who voted Tory in the 2019 general election, are telling national pollsters they intend to vote Labour at the next one but, because they disapprove of the ULEZ expansion by a hefty margin – 55 per cent opposed compared to 25 per cent in support – might stick with the Tories for the mayoral election. They might also be more motivated to turn out.
Looking at the local election results in councils just outside London, where some voters who commute into the capital by car or van will be impacted, there was little sign of a backlash against Labour, although that may be simply because people recognised that their own council leaders have no say over the policy.
For all the talk of a threat to Khan from splits in the centre-left and left vote, the real danger to him comes from wavering Conservative supporters failing to switch to him and the core Tory vote turning out in greater numbers than expected. Over the next year, Khan will have to be skilful at managing the narrative around the expansion of ULEZ and its impact on Londoners. But if he can get that right, he will have a very good chance of being the first person to win the London mayoralty for three successive terms.
Christabel Cooper is Director of Research at Labour Together. Follow her on Twitter. Map showing distribution of Labour (red and pink) and Conservative ( light and dark blue) mayoral candidates’ support in 2021 by Lewis Baston.
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