Christabel Cooper: How can the Conservatives win back London mayor?
The outcome of the London mayoral election was never in doubt, although Sadiq Khan’s victory was less emphatic than many had expected. Voter turnout declined in the 2016 election (from 46 percent to 42 percent), while it rose in other mayoral elections across the country: Khan’s lower-than-expected victory may be due in part to Labor supporters who believe their presence was at the election is not needed to win Khan.
Historically, neither Labor nor Conservatives have dominated politics in the capital – control of the Greater London Council wavered between parties between 1965 and its abolition in 1985, and the mayor’s office changed hands. Traditionally, prosperity has been closely linked to the choice of Conservatives and hardship to the choice of Labor, and so London – a city where extreme wealth and poverty meet on a daily basis – has been a fiercely contested battlefield between the parties.
More recently, however, British politics have been heavily marked by the conflict between social liberals and social conservatives, particularly on immigration. The EU referendum helped formalize this divide, and people today identify more strongly as a remainer or a leaver than with any political party. Given that younger people and college graduates were more likely to support Remain, it came as no surprise that a majority of Londoners (who are younger in age and have a higher than average number of college graduates) voted to stay in the EU.
The process of voter brain drain from the Conservatives and from the Labor party that has been so problematic for Labor in some parts of the North and Midlands has benefited the party in London. In his Analysis of the London electionsLewis Baston highlights the correlation between the districts where Khan did well and those who voted heavily to stay. So GCan the Tories win again in London despite the demographics speaking against it? The answer may depend on how you treat a group of important factors.
Will changing the voting system help them? The next mayoral competition will take place under a First Past The Post (FPTP) system, which is intended to benefit the Conservatives. Left-wing voting tends to split their first preferences among multiple parties, but the complementary voting system allows Labor to consolidate those first preference votes with second preferences (this also happened in the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough mayoral elections, resulting in a dramatic victory for Nik Johnson from Labor, although it received fewer preferential votes than its Conservative rival).
However, changing the electoral system is likely to change the way some people vote as well. In particular, it will encourage those who previously gave an independent or smaller party its first preference and used its second preference to influence whether the mayor is Labor or Conservative – the top two candidates in any London mayoral contest so far – to cast instead instead, their only vote for a candidate from one of the main parties.
Khan received more than twice as many second preference votes as his Tory challenger Shaun Bailey on May 6. Overall ranking of the Londoners A Labor Mayor was clearly preferred and this could be reflected in the FPTP in the future.
Will transport problems prove harmful to Labor? A major success of Khan’s first term was the introduction of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) in central London. But this, along with the introduction of new low-traffic areas by a number of London boroughs, particularly Labor, has made some motorists feel that London is now a hostile environment for motorists. Labor security guards anecdotally reported that Khan lost some support due to traffic problems, and with the ULEZ expanding sharply in October, there is potential for Conservatives to further exploit the unrest among motorists.
However, surveys suggest that such transport measures are not generally unpopular. A poll for the Evening standard in April found that 51 percent of Londoners approved the ULEZ extension, while only 33 percent were against and Redfield and Wilton found that around half of London’s low-traffic neighborhoods support it and only 16 percent oppose it. The Tories must win over current Labor voters to win mayor, but Labor voters in London are less likely to have cars and are therefore less angry about policies to reduce car traffic.
Pick a candidate who can bridge the cultural divide. Bailey was widely considered a poor candidate. Despite being a Leave supporter and having made derogatory comments about single mothers and a variety of ethnic and religious groups in the past, Conservatives seemed to believe that Bailey’s blackness would compensate for this in the eyes of Liberal voters, as they thought that this was environmental friendliness by Zac Goldsmith in 2016. But here, too, they were wrong.
Ironically, given his current incarnation as a tough Brexit-supportive, authoritarian prime minister, Boris Johnson made a better template for the kind of Conservative mayoral candidate who can successfully appeal to both liberal and socially conservative voters. Johnson’s Euroscepticism and aversion to “political correctness” was evident in his journalism, but he balanced it with support for immigration – a very resonant issue in a city where a third of its residents were born overseas. He was lucky enough to be elected a few years ago In front the EU referendum.
A Remain supporter like Justine Greening, who left the Conservatives in 2019, would have been a better candidate than Bailey. But if Brexit identities continue to have meaning and the Leave label continues to be strongly associated with conservatism, even a Tory remainer might have trouble reaching out to Londoners who voted to remain in the EU.
The mayor as national champion. In general, local elections for the ruling national party turn out badly, and the Tories may have an easier time winning London in the future if Labor is in power at the national level. But that can change. The overwhelming electoral success of Ben Houchen, Tory Mayor of Tees Valley, who resigned with two percent in 2017 and won with 40 percent in 2021, is in part due to the perception that he was able to influence his conservatives in government Direct investment towards Teesside.
The other major mayoral success that year was Labor’s Andy Burnham, who won again in Greater Manchester. His high-profile stalemate with the government last fall over compensation for Covid ended without receiving the additional money he wanted. What he and Houchen have in common, however, is that they are seen as leaders who put the interests of their region first.
In 2018, Houchen effectively nationalized a battered local airport, demonstrating a greater affinity with economically left-wing voters in the northeast than with traditional right-wing conservative supporters. A successful Tory candidate in London would have to be equally prepared to stand up for the values of the capital regardless of conservative orthodoxy.
The problems facing the Conservatives in London are the reflection of those Labor faces in much of England, where demographics work in favor of the Conservatives. But in Wales, which voted for Leave overall, Labor did well in the local elections, clearly branded themselves as “Welsh Labor”.
The challenge for both Labor and the Tories in areas where demographics are against them is to find candidates who are able to signal across the cultural divide and who can adopt a distinctive regional identity, represent the peculiarities of an area and represent its material interests – possibly against the prevailing currents in their own parties.
Such an approach in London would make Conservatives more competitive here – just as Labor could make them more competitive elsewhere in other parts of the UK.
Christabel Cooper is a data analyst and works councilor at Hammersmith & Fulham. Follow Christabel on Twitter.
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