Tuesday October 24 2023.
5 minute read
Election season: From City Hall to Number 10.
In common with many of the main English urban populations, Londoners are likely to head to the polls twice in 2024. Once to choose their next mayor, and again to elect the UK’s next government.
Both Labour and the Conservatives will be hoping that a positive performance in the capital can provide a springboard for a strong showing in the general election. This, coupled with mayoral races across most of the combined authorities, means that the dynamic – and potential tensions – between candidates and their national parties will be amplified.
So, who are London’s mayoral candidates, how are they affected by national politics, and what chance do they have?
Following a strong conference season, positive national polling and recent by-election successes, anything shy of a commanding Labour victory in London will temper optimism ahead of the general election. But incumbent Labour mayor Sadiq Khan is currently on a different political trajectory than that of party leader, Sir Keir Starmer.
A year ago, Khan looked certain to secure an historic third term as London’s mayor. Now, a deeply polarised response to his flagship ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) expansion means he’s still the strong favourite, but without the lead in the polls many in Labour have become accustomed to.
There are some subtle but important divergences between City Hall and Labour HQ. On issues like housing, they’re well aligned – Labour’s ambitions to look at ‘grey belt’ release will sit well with Khan. Yet on social issues, and especially green politics, there are differences in how they position themselves.
This was evident following the aftermath of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, with Starmer seeking to distance himself from the ULEZ expansion. This should come as no surprise, with the Labour leadership seeking to convince a national electorate that is more socially conservative than the Londoners on whom Khan depends.
Similarly, Labour activists in Manchester have said they won’t be putting Starmer’s housing commitments on their leaflets next year, demonstrating the difficulties of successfully transposing national policies to each of the UK’s diverse regions.
If Labour is to form the next government, a commanding victory in London almost needs to be a forgone conclusion. The path to power will be found in regions across Scotland, the north, midlands, and swing seats in the wider south. The party leadership may therefore need to focus more on its ties with regional leaders – such as the likes of Richard Parker, the Labour mayoral candidate in the West Midlands who is looking to unseat Andy Street.
Hoping to become the first woman to hold the office of London mayor is Conservative candidate Susan Hall.
A member of the London Assembly since 2017, Hall’s central campaign message is opposition to the expansion of London’s ULEZ. This mirrors the approach taken by her party at the national level, with the by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip giving the Conservatives confidence that this is an issue which can be used to drive a wedge between them and Labour, especially in outer London boroughs and the surrounding areas. Recent figures suggest this strategy could be effective, with one poll placing Hall just three points behind Khan.
One of the anomalies of the Conservative Party conference was the general absence of discussions on housing policy, with this being replicated in Hall’s campaign for mayor.
Ultimately, Hall isn’t going to win the campaign by focusing on housing. Her best chance of a strong performance would be to replicate Boris Johnson’s ‘donut strategy’; appealing to London’s outer boroughs (where homeownership is higher) in the absence of a chance of securing the necessary votes in inner London. Taking two extreme examples: in 2021, fewer than 30 per cent of homes in Tower Hamlets were owner-occupied, compared to around 70 per cent in Havering.
With Rishi Sunak tempering his commitment to net zero policies and focusing his housebuilding efforts on inner city ‘brownfield’ land, it looks like he’s aligned with his party’s candidate in their election strategy. Yet their performance in next year’s elections could be a bellwether for the party. A relatively strong showing in London alongside national underperformance could be used to by the socially conservative elements of the Conservative Party to strengthen their hand. Hall will campaign on crime and policing, and sits on the right of her party on social issues. A respectable vote share from Hall could provide the validation that her allies in Westminster need following the next general election.
Also competing in London’s 2024 mayoral election are the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and an ever growing list of independents. Without a realistic chance of victory, they will instead serve to influence and shape the debates that are set to take place over the next six months.
At the national level, the Liberal Democrats are busy setting out policies on housing and energy security, but for their candidate in London, Rob Blackie, local issues take precedence. Unlike Khan and Hall, Blackie’s relatively low public profile means his policies likely won’t face the same level of scrutiny as those of his higher profile running mates. Subsequently, while the Liberal Democrats are pushing green politics at the national level Blackie has been free to nuance his comments on green policies, supporting the principle of ULEZ, but calling the implementation ‘too blunt’.
Similarly, Green Party candidate Zoë Garbett has not made environmental policies her top priority. Granted, they’re still central to Garbett’s campaign, but they’re not her raison d’être like they are with her national party. Instead, she has focused her campaign on more localised issues like drug policy, policing and making London more affordable.
As each of London’s mayoral candidates prepares for next May’s election, they will – to varying degrees – engage in a balancing act that seeks to weigh locally-significant policies against the agenda of their national party.
For London’s protagonists, Sadiq Khan and Susan Hall, the mood around their respective parties could scarcely be more different, with Khan looking to ride atop the wave of optimism surrounding the Labour Party. Hall, on the other hand, will be doing her best to fight a turning tide, with this dynamic adding another fascinating dimension to an election we’ll be watching closely.
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