News that the London elections will be delayed by a year came as as much of a surprise to London Assembly Members as to the rest of us. Labour’s Unmesh Desai found out when a friend texted him the BBC’s breaking story about it. Conservative Shaun Bailey, also his party’s candidate for Mayor took the news in his stride while out campaigning in Chelsea, according to a party colleague, but had had no hint of it in advance.
Yet despite the postponement coming out of the blue, most AMs have been swift to recognise the need for it, given the scale of the coronavirus crisis. For the most part they have accepted the government’s decision that it should be for a year – longer than the Electoral Commission had recommended – on the grounds that it’s hard to predict how long recovering from the pandemic will take.
City Hall is facing practical challenges like every other workplace. This week’s meeting of the Assembly’s planning committee has been cancelled because of absentees. Attention has moved on to how to support groups and individuals who have come forward to co-ordinate the community response to the health crisis, and to figuring out how to maintain effective scrutiny of the Mayor through remote working.
There are also unexpected career implications. Ten of the 25 AMs were due to stand down at the election, but at this stage most seem set to stay on for another year. An exception is Londonwide AM Tom Copley, who will stand down on Friday and then take up the role of deputy mayor for housing, as planned. He is able to quit because Murad Qureshi, the highest-placed unsuccessful candidate on Labour’s 2016 list, is able to automatically replace him without a by-election needing to be held.
The postponement will also have unpredictable political effects on the race for City Hall. Last week’s long-awaited YouGov poll for Queen Mary University of London found Sadiq Khan on a seemingly all-conquering 49 per cent of first preference votes: four percentage points up on the previous poll in November and just short of an unprecedented outright win without the need for second preferences to come into play. Bailey was up by just a single point to 24, with Independent candidate Rory Stewart in third unchanged on 13 points.
Khan, though, could now have some headaches. Favourable statistics he might have presented to bolster claims about his record will go out of date and his pre-postponement announcement about ending his freeze on Transport for London public transport fares might be unpopular, albeit bus fares will stay unchanged. Housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s rejection of his new London Plan, complete with an attack on his housebuilding record, and the continuing fatal stabbings on London’s streets foreshadow some of the challenges Khan will face.
Bailey has been disparaged ever since he was selected as the Tory candidate in September 2018, with critics saying he lacks the abilities required to win. Public affairs veteran Peter Bingle is among those calling for the party to find a replacement. But Team Bailey points to a huge increase in the number of campaign staff, endorsements and activity since the New Year – as was to be expected once the general election was over – and can argue that the latest poll, coming before most Londoners had woken up to the fact an election was happening, was too early to base firm conclusions on. London Conservatives I’ve spoken to concur that Bailey will remain as candidate unless he wants to quit.
Rory Stewart’s future in the race prompts different questions. His chief of staff, Lizzie Loudon, affirms that he “has been clear he intends to stand” in 2021, and his Rory for London campaign became a sizeable operation, with more than 20 paid staffers and six people doing fundraising. Field Director Peter Martin, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, oversaw the recruitment of volunteers, with the aim of having a rep in every ward under borough co-ordinators. Alongside his widely-publicised #ComeKipWithMe initiative, Stewart’s website has listed dozens of events, including talks and Q&As by the man himself, and door-knocking sessions and socials.
He has attracted a broad coalition of activists. Over the past four weeks I have met Stewart campaigners of many different ages and backgrounds. Some had never been involved in party politics and saw in Stewart “a man of action,” not just a silver tongue. Others were disillusioned Tories, former Liberal Democrats, ex-members of Change UK or the centrist party Renew, and one time Labour and Brexit Party supporters alike. Recent Cambridge history graduate James Dilley described Stewart as “extremely sharp, good natured and conscientious” with a desire to “work hard for himself and bring that out in other people. Sadiq is distant, Rory is the opposite of that”. Saadia Ahmad, who quit the civil service to campaign for Stewart, said, “He understands what’s happening on the ground, and what he needs to do to make effective change. He’s not the sort of person who would allow things to take place slowly”. Debbie Simone, one of the four Tower Hamlets residents who brought down former borough Mayor Lutfur Rahman, thinks Stewart is motivated by “fundamental Christian values – I shouldn’t say ‘Christian’, but that’s where it comes from”.
With reference to the YouGov poll finding that Stewart was on course to receive many more second preference votes than Bailey and would have done better than the Tory against Khan had he reached the second round run-off, the LSE’s Tony Travers impishly suggests that the Conservatives – “much praised for [changing] colour faster than a chameleon” – might do well to adopt Stewart, a former Conservative minister, as their candidate.
However, being an Independent has given Stewart the freedom to call somewhat presciently for a more concerted national effort on coronavirus, including stricter suppression measures such as school closures and bans on large events (drawing scorn from Lib Dem candidate Siobhan Benita, who has accused him of irresponsibly sowing distrust in expert medical advice, and from Assembly Conservative Group leader Susan Hall, who stormed, “Some of these people with money don’t understand how poor people live”). On the other hand, unlike party candidates, Stewart faces a practical challenge around fundraising for a greatly-extended campaign and, with it, a psychological one. This time next year, his campaign will lack the novelty and urgency that drove his entry into the race.
As we move through the fast-developing crisis, who knows where politics in London will be in a month’s time, let alone next May?
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