Jack Brown: Don’t expect Sadiq Khan to win by miles

Jack Brown: Don’t expect Sadiq Khan to win by miles

Sadiq Khan is consistently ahead in the polls and even if the gap may be closing slightly parts of Redfield and Wilton’s recent detailed survey for On London confirm the strength of his position. However, it also provides plenty of reasons for expecting the result of the election itself to be tighter than those polls have been suggesting.

First, the good news for Khan. Redfield and Wilton found over half (55 per cent) of Londoners think him a strong candidate for Labour, compared to 35 per cent who say the same about the Conservatives’ Susan Hall – not too bad for an incumbent seeking an unprecedented third term.

Khan is even joint winner of the “Best Mayor of London Ever” prize: 32 per cent of Londoners chose him as best Mayor to date, the same percentage as chose Boris Johnson, though the poorer showing of London’s first Mayor, Ken Livingstone, is surely at least partly attributable to recency bias.

There is also overwhelming support for Khan’s universal funding of free school meals for primary school children, giving him good reason to hope it trumps his more controversial policies when Londoners go to their polling stations on 2 May. But which issues will decided how they vote? And which Londoners will vote at all?

Redfield and Wilton’s polling shows that transport is the policy area Londoners are most likely to regard the Mayor (and the London Assembly) as being more responsible for than is central government, by the large margin of 63 per cent to 25 per cent. It is the only one where a majority of Londoners hold that view. Policing and the environment are the only others where more Londoners think the Mayor has greater power than the government, and in those cases the margins are very small. With housing, the scores are the same.

Yet transport issues do not come top of many Londoners’ priority lists ahead of the upcoming election. The cost of living crisis leads, followed by crime, health and housing. More than twice as many Londoners believe that management of the economy is mostly the responsibility of national government and so might be inclined to think the Conservatives in Westminster have the most power over both the crisis and the response to it.

Could their decisions about their mayoral vote reflect this, with Londoners judging Khan for his performance in the area where they feel he has most influence? If so, there is more good news for him. Redfield and Wilton found 48 per cent of Londoners think the transport network has got better since 2016. Just 20 per cent think it has worsened. Most Londoners felt the Elizabeth Line a success and more Londoners like the renaming of Overground lines than don’t. So on public transport, Londoners perceive progress.

But where London’s roads are concerned, there is a case to be made that Khan is vulnerable. There is still a very mixed picture on the expansion of Ultra-Low Emission Zone, the transport-slash-environment policy with cost of living implications for some which the Evening Standard has claimed transformed Khan into a “conviction politician”.

Redfield and Wilton’s poll found more Londoners support the expansion of the ULEZ to cover all of Greater London than oppose it by 41 per cent to 35 per cent. Yet opposition to it remains large, and YouGov’s most recent poll found the opposite, with 44 percent opposing and 42 per cent supporting the latest change.

Both polls find opposition is, unsurprisingly, higher in outer London, where much of the Conservative core vote is. YouGov also found the voting intention gap between Khan and Hall in that part of the capital, though still favouring Khan, to now be “within the margin of error”. According to Redfield and Wilton’s work, slightly more Londoners “strongly oppose” the ULEZ expansion than “strongly support” it.

And ULEZ opposition is not melting away following the policy’s introduction, as some predicted. Redfield and Wilton found that similar numbers of Londoners, (in fact, fractionally more), say they have become more opposed to the policy since its introduction than say they have become more supportive. This is especially the case in outer London.

A surprisingly high 57 per cent of Londoners said they would consider voting for a candidate whose main platform was opposing the ULEZ. And as many as 40 per cent of Londoners said Khan was the Mayor who introduced the ULEZ in the first place, demonstrating the extent to which he has become personally associated with the policy.

Hall’s fairly relentless focus on the expansion is not, therefore, without electoral merit. There is, perhaps, less of it in her opposition to “pay per mile” road user charging, which she alleges Khan would initiate, despite his ruling it out – Redfield and Wilton found more support for it than opposition to it.

The ULEZ expansion will surely not lose Khan the election, but it will almost certainly lose him him more votes than it gains. This will not upset his electoral calculations: many ULEZ opponents are likely to vote Conservative anyway, and although it can be considered a cost of living issue for some, Khan will hope his his Transport for London fares freeze and his free school meals programme will outweigh any damage done.

Nonetheless, the ULEZ is an interesting and not insignificant feature of this election. Could it mean Conservative-leaning outer Londoners will be more motivated to turn out?

To date, no Mayor of London has won a third term and as OnLondon’s excellent elections guide observes, each two-term Mayor to date has won by a smaller distance the second time than the first. Khan could afford a decline in overall vote share and still win, but much will depend on whose voters can be convinced to turn up on polling day.

Turnout has been below 50 per cent for every mayoral election so far. The most recent YouGov poll reported that most Londoners think that Khan is doing a bad job. More shockingly, over a third of those who intend to vote Labour at the next general election thought this. Will they fail to turn out in the numbers Khan needs?

And none of this considers the impact of the new First Past The Post system. Khan’s first-preference majority in 2021 was less than five points. Could he fail to convince enough Green and Liberal Democrat voters to “lend” him their votes?

It would be fair to observe that this piece poses a series of “questions to which the answer is (probably) no”. A third term Sadiq Khan remains the likely outcome, even if the race could be tighter than polls have suggested. It appears that Londoners like Khan, but are not entirely impressed with his record to date.

In his defence, the Mayor has faced numerous challenges from early on in his first term, and has had to deal with a national government of the opposite political hue throughout his entire eight years. If re-elected, he will probably have a Labour government to work with soon, though it’s unlikely he would be granted significant new resources. A third-term Khan will have to find ways to deliver more effectively across the key areas of transport, crime, housing and the environment.

Jack Brown lectures in London Studies at King’s College and is the author of The London Problem. X/Twitter: Jack Brown and On London. Support OnLondon and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE.

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