After all the strange events of this political summer, the minds of the party strategists, commentators and pollsters are starting to focus on the large batch of elections that are taking place on 5 May 2016 in every part of the United Kingdom, one of only two sets of midterm elections with complete coverage (barring any local peculiarities arising from city-region devolution or changes in local government boundaries).
The most powerful body to be elected next May is the Scottish parliament, but there is not much doubt that Nicola Sturgeon will still be running the Scottish government after the elections. For suspense, London is shaping up to be the contest to watch, and there have been a couple of recent polls on voting intentions for the mayoralty prompted by the long-expected formal selection of Zac Goldsmith as the Conservative candidate.
The YouGov poll reported last week showed a tiny lead for Labour’s Sadiq Khan over Goldsmith. The question wording was interesting in that it started with a ‘forced choice’ between the two, with no other candidates listed, and the candidates named and identified with their parties. Khan led 51-49. ICM asked the voting intention question in a different way, with all the identified candidates for each principal party (including the Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon and the Green party’s Sian Berry) and asking for first and second preferences rather than a forced choice. ICM found that after reallocating second preferences for other candidates, Khan would win by a more comfortable seven-point margin. Given the experience of May 2015’s polling fiasco, even a seven-point lead is hardly reassuring for London Labour, although one would certainly rather be starting seven points ahead than seven behind.
The voters have not really focused yet on the contest; even Khan and Goldsmith are little known (48 per cent and 40 per cent claim to be familiar with them to some degree) and their images are not distinct from their parties’. The ICM question in particular may be producing something closer to a ‘generic Labour versus generic Tory’ response, while London mayoral elections have been strongly affected by the voters’ responses to the personal characteristics of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. For Goldsmith to win, one of two things has to happen – either he manages what Johnson did and gets a vote that a ‘generic Tory’ could not win, or Labour’s national popularity collapses. Both are possible, hence the element of suspense in the contest.
Among people who know about Goldsmith there is a perception that he is pro-environment, with 24 per cent saying that he is strong on the environment (although, before getting too carried away, this represents only 10 per cent of Londoners), and the economy being his second issue. Khan’s strengths are perceived as being in housing (23 per cent, with the economy and transport tied for second).
The ICM poll tested a number of environmental policies and messages among the electorate, and found that proposals such as reducing air pollution and fossil fuel dependence by using clean energy, and helping the ‘green economy’, were overwhelmingly popular, with only around 10 per cent thinking them bad ideas or not important and upwards of 70 per cent approving. Given this balance of opinion, and the possible pivotal role of Green party second preference, it is a no-brainer for the main candidates to endorse the policies and to cover themselves with a bit of green credibility. Unfortunately, the ICM poll did not test for the willingness of the electorate to pay significant amounts of money to further the environmental agenda, but provided the costs are small (or that people can be persuaded that it saves money in the medium term) there is a huge appetite for greening London. This is an opportunity for Goldsmith, given his existing association with the environment, but also for Khan. Labour can put forward some fairly radical ideas on the environment (as long as enough support comes from the business sector) and this would help Khan gain traction on the issue, and put Goldsmith on the defensive – either say ‘me too’, or demur and lose his USP separating him from being ‘just another Tory’.
This will be the first London mayoral election not to feature Livingstone, and the first since 2000 that has not involved an incumbent mayor (and even in 2000, the folk-memory of Livingstone’s time leading the Greater London Council gave him a quasi-incumbent status). The two main candidates are both relatively unfamiliar to the electorate, but reasonably well regarded as capable and with good intentions, and the contest will be shaped by the national party contest and the efforts of Khan and Goldsmith to define themselves, and each other.
Whoever wins, there will be an interesting postscript. If Khan becomes mayor, there will be a by-election in his not entirely safe Tooting constituency, where the Conservatives have sometimes entertained hopes of a gain thanks to strong organisation and the increasingly affluent nature of half of the constituency. The last time a government party gained a by-election from the opposition was in 1982, in the neighbouring constituency of Mitcham and Morden. A Goldsmith win would open up the Richmond Park seat, which, while it looks safely Tory on the 2015 figures, has a long history of Liberal Democrat activity and was held by the party from 1997 to 2010. If there is one sort of election where the Liberal Democrats do well, it is a by-election in seat where they have an organisation in place …
Lewis Baston is a contributing editor to Progress and senior research fellow at Democratic Audit. He tweets @LewisBaston
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