With most political headlines being made by the Conservatives’ internal battles over Europe, and Labour’s internal battles over everything else, you would be forgiven for forgetting that we stand just four months away from one of the biggest elections in UK politics, the selection of a new Mayor of London.
Since the role was created in 2000 it has been held by just two men, both known universally by their first names – Ken and Boris. And, strangely enough, the two leading candidates for the 2016 Mayoral election are widely known by just their first names too. This year it is ‘seconds out’ for Zac in the blue corner versus Sadiq in the red.
Whilst the formal powers of London’s Mayor are limited except in a few areas like transport and planning, Boris Johnson has shown how the role can be used as a pulpit from which to become one of the most influential figures in British politics. And with the Government’s city devolution agenda, it is highly likely that the powers of the Mayor will increase further during the tenure of the next incumbent and employment support is one of the areas very much under consideration for further devolution.
Twelve months ago, conventional political wisdom was that the next Mayoralty was Labour’s for the taking. The party dominate local government and Parliamentary seats across London, with the Conservatives relegated to prime central London and the outer zones.
But as the year has progressed, Conservative optimism about their chances of retaining the Mayoralty has grown. They believe that the chaos Labour is going through nationally will harm them in London, whilst they feel their candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has greater mainstream appeal than Sadiq Khan.
Goldsmith is charming, good-looking and comes across as an atypical Conservative, more concerned with environmental issues than with big business. His long-standing campaign against Heathrow expansion shows his willingness to put his principles and the interests of his constituents above those of his party.
Sadiq Khan is much more of a typical party figure. But, the son of a bus driver, Sadiq believes his personal story will relate to ordinary Londoners much better than Zac’s, and thinks that London’s mounting housing crisis plays into his hands as people focus on bread-and-butter issues.
Amongst the noise of the personal brickbats, housing has been far-and-away the number one policy issue debated so far, with transport a distant second. Issues like employment have not been on the radar so far, but there is a long way until polling day and that could certainly change before then.
As it stands, the most recent polls show Sadiq Khan seven points clear of Goldsmith, with his lead growing in recent weeks. Although Khan is currently the frontrunner his lead is not insurmountable and, if we think back to Boris Johnson’s Mayoral campaign, he too was a good margin behind his Labour rival six months before polling.
Alongside that, Zac Goldsmith’s main grounds for optimism lie in what might happen to second preferences for other candidates. Unless a candidate reaches 50% in the first round, then second preferences of losing candidates will be redistributed.
As both a Euro-sceptic and a noted environmentalist, Goldsmith is very confident he will sweep up the lions share of Green and UKIP votes at that stage. The Lib Dem vote is likely to split more evenly between Zac and Sadiq, although having been decimated in London last May, the number of Lib Dem votes to go round is far fewer than it used to be.
All of which adds up to the fact that this race is going to be close, and no-one would be surprised to see it finish 51-49 one way or the other. In 2016, the race for one of the most high-profile jobs in British politics is going to go to the wire.
By Chris Rumfitt, Founder & Chief Executive, Field Consulting