This year’s mayoral election campaign is well and truly underway. Sadiq Khan, incumbent and favourite for an historic third term, is to freeze TfL public transport fares fares for a year and has pledged that mayoral funding for free primary school meals – including for the children of London’s middle classes – will be extended. Amid a cost of living crisis, a lot of Londoners will feel the benefits.
There has also been some astute political positioning. A series of speeches have reiterated the Mayor’s longstanding opposition to Brexit, highlighting its negative, if largely hypothetical, impact on the capital’s economy, and calling for a “youth mobility agreement” with the European Union.
This could be a shrewd strategic move. Not for nothing is London often portrayed as the Remainer capital of the UK. In 2016, 60 per cent of Londoners voted to Remain. Seven of the 10 strongest Remain-backing local authorities in the country were London boroughs. And recent polling suggests that around 60 per cent of Londoners would elect to rejoin the EU if given the chance.
Mayor Khan clearly sees capturing that 60 per cent as vital to his chances of success on 2 May, and he is likely to be right. With the election to use via the First Past the Post system for the first time, Khan must convince left-leaning Liberal Democrat and Green voters to pick him as their first and now only choice.
In a political landscape awash with divisive issues, both at home and overseas, Khan will surely hope the UK’s relationship with the European Union is a unifying point around which an electoral coalition that favours him can coalesce, even though the issue itself is not directly within his control.
None of this is to say his stance is entirely cynical. Khan has been consistent in his opposition to Brexit, and he clearly believes in what he has been saying. And while criticising Brexit and pushing for a closer relationship with the EU might be toxic for Labour politicians on the national stage, for a potential Labour Mayor of London, it could be a winner.
The strategy is not without risks. As we approach four years since Britain formally left the EU, it could reopen a divisive debate that many are simply tired of. Conservatives will likely enjoy Khan’s explicitly pro-EU stance rubbing Keir Starmer up the wrong way.
Furthermore, London is also home to a lot of Leave voters, who may find Khan’a approach alienating. The 40 per cent who voted to Leave in 2016 represented around 1.5 million of 3.8 million votes cast. There were more Leave voters in London than the East Midlands, the North East and Wales.
Lambeth, which recorded the highest Remain vote percentage outside of Gibraltar, was also home to 30,340 Leave voters. Boston in Lincolnshire, which famously saw the highest Leave percentage in the country, recorded just 22,974 Leave votes. There were more Leave voters in each of Havering, Bromley, Bexley, Barnet and Croydon than there were people in Boston, let alone voters.
London’s Leave-Remain division correlates to some extent with its geographical “doughnut”, with Leave votes piling highest in ten outer London boroughs. These also tended to have the highest turnouts in the capital. Perhaps relatedly, there are more older people in outer than inner London and, crucially, more people overall. The national furore around the expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone may have calmed down, but for some in outer London it remains a very significant issue.
Can Khan afford to write these voters off? Might these outer London, Leave-inclined voters, already in the habit of turning out in higher numbers, be more motivated to turn out in May, especially if Khan redraws the battle lines along those of the 2016 referendum? If so, could the lack of mainstream alternatives to the Conservative candidate focus the capital’s Leave-legacy coalition on Susan Hall, while the Remain legacy vote, though larger, is divided?
The simple answer is – probably not. On paper, Khan should be vulnerable in this year’s election. No previous candidate has won three terms in a row, and the cost-of-living crisis would typically harm an incumbent. Changes to the electoral system and the introduction of voter ID both make Khan’s task harder.
But he is significantly ahead in the polls and even if his Brexit-related strategy further alienates London’s Legacy Leavers, they were already unlikely to vote for him. The irony is that by changing the electoral system for mayoral contests – on order, according to some, to improve their chances of winning – the Conservatives have effectively pushed Khan towards campaigning on what is still a majority position in the UK capital.
Jack Brown is a lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. X/Twitter: Jack Brown and On London. Photo: Sadiq Khan campaigning for remain in 2016 (from his Facebook page). Support OnLondon.co.uk and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE.