Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Reach out

Labour must avoid complacency about victory in next year’s London mayoral race, warns Claire Kober

That moment at 10pm on 7 May 2015 will be etched on the hearts of Labour activists for decades to come. It was the moment that exit polls indicated we were about to record our worst election performance for over 30 years. The party was brought back down to earth with a collective jolt. Despite the sense of optimism that had marked local campaigns, it soon became clear that we would win fewer seats than anyone had predicted.

The stark reality is that the Labour party has not won a major election since 2005. The scale of the task before us is immense. We now need an 8.5 per cent swing to win a majority in 2020. And this is before the Conservatives press ahead with changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries.

It is often said that ‘London is a Labour city’, but the reality is that London has not elected a Labour mayor since 2004. There have been four mayoral elections and Labour has won just one of them.

Last month in London we won only seven of our 12 target seats. We failed to take Hendon where we faced a Tory majority of just 106. We also failed in Battersea, Croydon Central, Finchley and Golders Green and Harrow East despite having excellent candidates who energised activists and ran outstanding campaigns which surpassed those of their opponents. Failure should not be laid at the door of candidates but rather at our national strategy, approach and leadership.

In the months leading up to polling day, much was said about overcoming the Conservatives through a ‘ground war’ involving four million conversations. But in the absence of a precisely targeted campaign strategy  it simply was not enough.

Across London, Labour received roughly the same number of votes as the Tories and the United Kingdom Independence party combined and fell well short of the 50 per cent of votes needed to win the mayoral election without having to count on the unpredictable second preferences of others. The uncomfortable truth is that many voters – particularly in outer boroughs – still do not trust us sufficiently to commit their vote to Labour. It is easy to put this down to a lack of trust in our economic competence but the reality is far more challenging to combat: we lack a connection with these voters. Too often underlying these conversations is a sense that we inhabit different worlds, that we do not share the same values or ambitions for the future. We can win these voters back but the politics of relationships and connection will not be fixed with new policies alone.

It was a good night for the Conservatives in our capital and we would do well not to forget that

Overall there were some good results for Labour in London. Our vote share increased from 36 per cent in 2010 to 43 per cent. Seven of the target seats won – three from Liberal Democrats, and four from Tories – included Wes Streeting’s outstanding result in Ilford North. But in spite of our great candidates and fantastic activists we should have done a lot better.

Sadly, it was a good night for the Conservatives in our capital and we would do well not to forget that. Their share of the vote remained the same as 2010 at 35 per cent and they had a net loss of just one seat.

There is a fundamental weakness in our strategy if we simply swallow the assumption that ‘London is a Labour city’. While we may have secured a greater share of the vote here than in many parts of the country, the reality remains that Labour’s 1.5m votes are matched by the 1.5m votes gained by the Conservatives and Ukip.

The collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote did not benefit Labour in the way it was expected to. While victories in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Brent Central and Hornsey and Wood Green were hard won, the Liberal Democrats also lost three seats to the Conservatives in the capital. A belt of south-west London now looks distinctly more unfriendly to a Labour mayoral candidate than it previously did.

So what does the general election tell us about next year’s mayoral contest? That the Labour candidate must face outward and engage voters from across the capital. The reality is that successful mayoral candidates – Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson – have only won by drawing support from voters of parties other than their own. And therefore we need a candidate who is not simply tribally Labour but who can reach out to Londoners regardless of their circumstances.

We need someone who has clear messages about the things that matter most to Londoners – housing, childcare, transport and policing. The Labour party is a broad coalition of interests and views and it is right that it should continue to be so. But we risk losing the broader appeal with voters if candidates are beholden to special interests within that broad coalition.

We also need a Labour candidate who can beat Zac Goldsmith (should he be persuaded to enter the race) because he is without question the greatest potential obstacle to Labour winning City Hall. This year he was returned to parliament with a majority of 23,000 in a seat that was held for many years by the Liberal Democrats. I fear his appeal is likely to stretch beyond west London and that he will pick up Liberal Democrat and Green second preferences across the capital.

In the midst of the task of choosing a candidate for mayor, we should not forget the assembly seats or be complacent about Ukip which as a party polled 8.1 per cent in London at the general election. It is right to say that it has little traction in the capital compared to other major parties, but to gain a seat on the assembly it only needs five per cent of the vote, and it has achieved that before.

We also need a clear ask to central government on a further devolution deal for London. Whatever we may think about George Osborne, he has a clear agenda which is translating into a genuine devolution of power. The Greater Manchester deal is a historic moment in this country’s history and we should not lose sight of that.

Further devolution for London is critical if it is to continue to prosper, solve its own challenges and ensure everyone can benefit from all it offers. London boroughs working together with the mayor to tackle unemployment, skills, offender rehabilitation, and complex families is critical to delivering social justice in our city. The bottom line is that we will not tackle 21st century problems in a complex global city with 20th century solutions based on a centralised model of government.

Five years of funding reductions leave us with little choice. We can either continue to find millions of pounds of savings individually as 32 boroughs, or we can radically reconfigure the system – providing London government with the tools to tackle its own challenges – and link public service reform to economic growth. The objective, surely, is to achieve the best possible return with public money.

Finally, this is about how we do politics. Success in London next year cannot be achieved through old-style, back-room deals and factional stitch-ups. We will do it by building a broad, inclusive campaign, inspiring Londoners and welcoming them to our cause. We need an offer that is for all London, that speaks to their concerns and delivers real change, not one that divides rather than unites. This is a fantastic city and we need a candidate that can capture that spirit and harness it for better things to come.


Claire Kober is leader of the London borough of Haringey


Photo: Juan Salmoral

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Claire Kober

is leader of Haringey council


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