Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The rise of ‘Boris Labour’

In each of the London mayoral elections, Ken Livingstone has outpolled Labour. Now the party is way ahead of its candidate in the capital, finds Peter Kellner

Here is a statistic to add colour to Boris Johnson’s cheeks and drain it from Ken Livingstone’s: one in five people who would vote Labour in a general election plan to vote for Johnson for mayor. It is this group that will decide the outcome of the contest in May 2012. If they stick with the mayor, he will win a second term. But if enough of them return ‘home’, Livingstone will take back the crown he lost in 2008.

In principle, next year’s election should be a shoo-in for Livingstone. There are two reasons why. The first is that London is a Labour city. In the 2010 general election, the Conservatives held a seven-point lead across Britain as a whole – but Labour retained a narrow lead in London. Since then, the capital – like the rest of the country – has seen a swing to Labour. YouGov’s latest London survey, in June, put Labour on 51 per cent and the Tories on 32 per cent. Given that the nationwide party battle has been fairly static since then, that is probably a good guide to where the parties stand in London this autumn.

The second reason is that in each of the three mayoral elections since the post was created, Livingstone has outperformed the Labour party. The graphic shows what happened. It compares the two-party division of the list vote for the London assembly – that is, excluding the votes for minor parties – with the final run-off vote for mayor. (There are different ways to calculate the ‘Ken effect’ but each tells the same story.)

In 2000, when Livingstone stood as an independent, he defeated Steve Norris in the final count by 58-42 per cent. The two-party division of the list vote was Labour 51-Conservative 49. So there was a ‘Ken bonus’ of seven points. In 2004, with Labour less popular nationally and many of the party’s voters staying at home, the Tories moved ahead in the list vote. But the ‘Ken bonus’ was worth eight points. This overcame Labour’s unpopularity as a party, so Livingstone was easily re-elected.

By 2008, Labour was even more unpopular; its share of the two-party vote in London fell to 44 per cent. There was still a ‘Ken bonus’, but it fell to just three points—not enough to deprive Johnson of victory by 53-47 per cent.

Today, given Labour’s huge lead in London, any ‘Ken bonus’ should guarantee his victory, and by a record margin. Yet Johnson is ahead. The same YouGov poll that showed Labour 19 points ahead (which translates into a 61-39 advantage on the two-party vote), also put the mayor ahead by a similar margin to his victory three years ago. The capital’s big swing to Labour has not produced any swing back to Livingstone The modest ‘Ken bonus’ last time has become a massive ‘Boris bonus’ of 15 points today.

By far Livingstone’s biggest problem is the one in five Labour voters who prefer Johnson. The party’s real problem is not so much ‘blue Labour’ as ‘Boris Labour’. By burrowing into the detail of YouGov’s data, we can see why so many Labour supporters intend to vote for a Tory mayor. They tend to think that Livingstone has lost touch with ordinary Londoners, and that Johnson is decisive and sticks to what he believes in. The essential tasks of the coming campaign will be for Johnson to sustain those verdicts – and for Livingstone to overturn them.


Peter Kellner is president of YouGov. This article originally appeared in Prospect magazine


Photo: Lewisham Dreamer

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Peter Kellner

is president of YouGov


  • Peter gets it exactly and leaders of communities like the Jewish community have been aware of this for a long while. Jewish labour party members and many from outer london boroughs and from many sections of the party begged for a post election defeat nomination process and timetable that was not a ken coronation. We predicted labour would in opposition be way ahead in London, but we also all sensed that To get those labour supporters around us to vote for ken this time would be beyond a Herculean task … All too easy to see… Just wish It were different

  • Sadly there is no-one else in London labour who has the stature of Ken – our task as a party post election (win or lose) must be to develop good candidates of the stature to take on the Tories and appeal to the average non aligned Londoner. This means someone who is a rainmaker – ie who has a buzz about them to attract and inspire people beyond Labour supporters.

    For this we need somone with star quality, ‘edgy’, rebellious not an insider plodding local authority leader, current GLA member or union leader.

    Probably not a former cabinet minsiter too – unless its someone like Alan Johnson who has the stature and a back story beyond politics – and definitely not an ex-middle ranking minister. And someone who has, or perceived to have, genuine connections to London – ie not a Frank Dobson type. Its a tough call but there must be someone out there!

    (Speaking of Dobbo I see his website is still active – nice!)

  • Andrew Gilberts comments are even more depressing than Peter Kellner’s. If he is right London’s Jewish community would rather vote for a Tory rather than Labour purely because of the latter’s stance on the Middle East rather than what’s best for London’s community as a whole. I find that hard to beleive.

  • Certainly Boris ‘sticks to what he believes in’, i.e. Boris. ‘ Ordinary voters’ perceptions’ seem to be the reverse of what either candidate has actually said and done. Boris’s popularity is because he comes across as amusing and likeable, negating Ken’s (equally dubious) ‘cheeky chappie’ image. Neither the mayor nor the GLA get sufficient sustained media exposure for even the most conscientious voter to get much idea of what’s going on, let alone what Johnson is really like. (Even the Evening Standard is read by only a tiny proportion of Londoners.)
    The situation is a warning to the rest of the country as to why elected mayors are not a good idea.

  • Whilst those on the right of the Jewish community would certainly cite Ken’s position on the middle east, they would not vote for Ken anyway. Iranian TV, Karadawi, fighting parts of the jewish community for 30 years don’t help but many on the “centre” left in the Jewish community did vote for Ken in the first two elections. After the defeat some of us reached out to Ken and took him to dinner it was a disaster. As I have explained to Ken, Ed and others I hope by focussing on getting the vote out for Dismore (in Barnet/Camden) against Coleman in the GLA election will persuade some to reconsider their voting preference for mayor. Boris is out campaigning hard to our community and others and is out in the outer London boroughs, Ken has got to do so much more than he is at the moment.

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