Local elections are often over-hyped in their significance, but this year things are different. With a whole host of elections for combined authorities and metro-mayoralties that were postponed last year due to the pandemic, meeting an already packed line up of devolved parliament and local authority elections that were already planned for this year – this May will see the largest set of local elections in British political history, giving us a unique snapshot of the state of British politics in the post-pandemic era.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be taking an in-depth look at some of the most interesting races being fought across the country, starting with Field’s home turf of London.
It feels like a very long time since Londoners last went to the polls to choose between Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith. Back then, in the pre-Brexit and pre-Covid age, the biggest issues were tackling rapidly spiralling housing costs and the lack of capacity on London’s transport network – both by-products of the city’s success. Now the picture couldn’t be more different. Most of central London lies empty, TfL is facing an existential crisis, dependent on central Government funding to keep running a transport network that they don’t want people to use, and London has seen the largest decline in its population since half of it lied in ruins after the Second World War.
Strangely, despite the obvious contrasts in the city’s fortunes, the 2016 campaign seems eerily prescient of today’s national political divide. It saw a moderate and sensible Labour politician going up against an old-Etonian liberal Conservative and relentless attempts by the Conservatives to paint the Labour candidate as a dangerous radical, which fell on deaf ears. Make of that what you will, we all know London is essentially a different country to the rest of the UK, but if today’s Conservative strategists want to know whether labelling Keir Starmer as a threat to national security is a solid campaign strategy then they only have to look at what happened five years ago in London to get their answer.
Since then though, Khan’s record hasn’t exactly been stellar. The last five years have seen the largest decline in London’s fortunes as a city since the 1970s and whilst Khan himself can’t shoulder all the blame for this, you’d still expect it to have some impact on his poll ratings. It’s also surprisingly hard to pinpoint exactly what he’s achieved in the last five years – Ken Livingstone had the 24/7 Freedom Pass, the Oyster Card, the Congestion Charge and brought the Olympics to London, Boris Johnson had the actual Olympics themselves, the new Routemasters, Cycle Super Highways and Boris Bikes (yes we know they were a Livingstone idea but no one calls then Ken Bikes). But what will Khan be remembered for? Bus hopper fares, the night tube and low-traffic neighbourhoods? Does it really compare to his predecessors?
And yet, it’s almost inconceivable that he won’t still be Mayor come 7th May. Every poll conducted since the candidates were announced has put him comfortably ahead of his Conservative rival Shaun Bailey. So why, given Khan’s mixed track record, is Bailey doing so badly?
To start, he’s hardly the slick political operator Khan is. Bailey’s campaign has been gaffe prone since day one, from claiming that it would be realistic to expect a homeless family to save up £5,000 for a deposit on an affordable home to saying a universal income would naturally be used by poor people to buy drugs. Just this month he found himself getting all the wrong headlines for a poorly timed attempt to use the murder of Sarah Everard to score a political point over Khan’s record on crime. Time and again, Bailey has hopelessly misjudged the public mood in London.
Secondly, he’s completely failed to come up with a new strategy to actually win an election in London. Instead he’s followed the same ‘doughnut’ strategy of setting outer London against inner London that the Conservatives have been sticking to since 2008. This worked for Boris Johnson who could draw on dissatisfaction with a Labour Government in Westminster and name recognition to make inroads into inner London boroughs, but it didn’t work for Zac Goldsmith which should have made it obvious that it wouldn’t work for an even more obscure figure like Bailey.
Finally, he’s been hampered from day one by a national party machine which never believed he could win and has essentially long-since given up on him. Perhaps they wonder what good a Conservative Mayor of London would actually serve the modern Conservative Party, thriving as it does on the culture wars between the metropolitan elite and the left-behind residents of ‘normal’ Britain. By definition a Tory Mayor of London has to be a liberal establishment figure and having another one of those soaking up the limelight would hardly be good for the parties image in places like Hartlepool or Huddersfield.
All this has led many to wonder if London will ever see a Conservative mayor again or whether it’s now a Labour city for a generation. Yet, the future of the city looks anything but certain and over the last year more and more of the young professionals that have made the city such a Labour stronghold have been leaving, heading back to the towns and cities they grew up in. It’s too early to say whether trends such as these will have long-term impacts on the city but it’s looking increasingly likely that the London of 2025 will be significantly different to the London of today and it may yet present opportunities for a Conservative Party that’s willing to take them.