Dave Hill: Sadiq Khan must inspire Londoners to cure a national malady

Dave Hill: Sadiq Khan must inspire Londoners to cure a national malady

Every indicator says it’s looking grim for Susan Hall, the Conservative candidate for London Mayor who couldn’t say what the price of a bus fare is and still reckoned she’d had her pocket picked on the Tube even after her lost belongings had been returned to her by the fellow Londoner who found them.

So hopeless appears the quest of his Tory challenger to deprive Labour’s Sadiq Khan of a third term on 2 May, even the polling industry seems uninterested. The only survey we’ve had so far this year gave Khan the same 25 point lead found by the same company, YouGov, back in November, perhaps telling us that becoming better known has not helped Hall make headway.

Her most recent column for the Evening Standard drips with off-putting venom, delivered in a faux demotic style that makes you wonder if she and her scriptwriters are more worried about her losing support on her Nigel Farage, ULEZ vandal flank than they are interested in gaining it at Khan’s expense. With celebrity know-nothing Lee Anderson flouncing off to join the dangerous dreamers of Reform UK, many Tory politicians, including the Prime Minister, are thinking in that way.

Paul Scully, the erstwhile minister for London who was so foolishly excluded from the Tory candidate shortlist, has pointed out that Hall’s campaign is being run from Tory national HQ and therefore close to a national government that trails Labour in the capital by an even bigger distance that Hall is trailing Khan.

And yet the race for City Hall is not over, as Khan himself so clearly understands. The sense of apathy about the contest makes the reasons why its outcome should not be taken for granted worth repeating.

In 2021 a string of polls gave the Labour incumbent massive leads over a different, much-mocked Tory opponent, but the final result was a lot closer; the Tory government’s imposition of First Past The Post for mayoral contests helps Tory mayoral candidates (as we’ve already seen in Bedford); in London, the government’s imposition of Voter ID could do the same; the Tories’ London base may be small and still shrinking, but might be solid in its opposition to Khan; Labour’s London base is much larger, but is it as firmly in favour of four more years of Khan as the Tory equivalent is against?

That difference in scale between Labour’s general election poll lead in London and Khan’s over Hall points to an answer to that question. Labour activists point to the same one. “It’s hard work on the doorstep,” a party foot soldier tells me. “There’s no love.” Another, closer to Khan’s campaign, says the same: “It’s difficult. You’re saying to people ‘hello, it’s us again’ and some of them aren’t that thrilled.”

That latest YouGov poll, conducted for the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London, found that, despite Khan’s huge lead, around one fifth of Londoners said they hadn’t yet decided who to vote for, and their net satisfaction rating of Khan – the difference between those who think he has done well and those who don’t – was minus 18. Not great.

Those findings should be assessed in perspective. A recent Ipsos poll put Rishi Sunak at minus 46 by the same measure, and Sir Keir Starmer at minus 18 – the same as Khan, even though the Labour leader hasn’t yet been in power at all, let alone for eight often difficult years. Looked at that way, Khan’s satisfaction rating can be seen as halfway decent or at least no worse than might have been expected. Also, Lord Ashcroft’s very detailed mayoral poll in November found that, on the whole, Londoners thought Khan had done better than average in a range of policy areas.

Even so, put together all the reasons for caution about stated voting intentions and it is plain that Hall has reasonable grounds for thinking she can run Khan reasonably close and may even have a grain of hope of winning.

That is why Khan and his campaign will continue to make overtures to Liberal Democrat and Green supporters to “lend” Khan their single mayoral vote, making up for Londoners’ loss of the second preference option they have traditionally had under the Supplementary Vote system and ensuring that Hall, with her well-documented array of hard Right enthusiasms, does not enter the mayoral office at City Hall through the back door.

Revving up Londoners to cast their votes for him, even if they aren’t usually Labour supporters or if they usually are but aren’t much enthused by the thought of more Sadiq, has to be the incumbent’s top priority. He needs to fire them up and inspire them. And he does have resources for that to hand.

Speaking to Labour members in east London recently, Khan insisted he would run on his track record. That is stronger than some give him credit for and far less weak than his Conservative opponents claim: seen in the round and in the context of Brexit, the pandemic, the climate crisis, the revelations about poor standards in the Met, national government anti-London attitudes since 2019, national post-Covid recorded crime trends and the generally feeble state of the UK economy, we might ask ourselves if a theoretical Mayor Hall – or any other – would have done better.

Of course, much depends on what you’re looking for. But while we – and that includes me – might wish the Labour Mayor had done some things differently, Tory insistence that his tenure has been a huge disaster is unconvincing.

Would Hall, apparently a subscriber to the “few bad apples” school of thought about lowlife cops, have made it her business to see the Met cleaned up? Would she, so devoutly no subscriber to a transport hierarchy that puts sustainable modes first, have made more successful use of the mayoralty’s limited powers to make London a more pleasant and productive place?

Khan can also, as he already has, talk up the prospect of a Labour national government at last replacing the ragged Tory one that seems willing to sink to any level to cling on to control of an equally ragged United Kingdom. He is helped in that regard by Hall’s conspicuous failure to speak out against Anderson’s inflammatory “Islamists” smearing of him, demonstrating by her silence how adjacent she is to her national party’s line on everything.

In that, she makes herself an electoral asset for Khan – a London inversion of Tory national attempts to chalk up points in the “red wall” by attacking the Labour Mayor, of which Anderson’s outburst was such a foul example.

Khan should exploit that advantage to the full, and not only for London’s sake. Should Hall be vanquished by only low single figures, it will be seized on by the advancing radical Right of her party as vindicating proof that even in “woke” Remainer London, with its many immigrants and “metropolitan elite”, a so-called “common sense” Tory can give Labour a fright.

Our weary, afflicted, malfunctioning nation does not need such politicians to be emboldened. They are bad for its health. And Hall is such a politician. Sadiq Khan is a Briton, London-born, who has already made history by becoming the first Muslim Mayor of the capital city. He hopes to make some more by becoming the first person to win three elections for London Mayor. I hope he does it. His country needs him.

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