George Galloway for London Mayor?

The political maverick is one of the best speakers of his generation and might win over the capital's unpredictable electorate

November 06, 2015
Placeholder image!

The bookies have Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan neck and neck in the race to be Mayor of London. On the face of it this is Sadiq's race to lose. London is a Labour city—voting solidly Labour in the most recent borough elections, the European Parliament elections and even the General Election where Labour made gains. And next year's Mayoral vote will be just after the cuts in tax credits—a moment of pain caused directly by the Conservative government, whatever the mitigation eventually introduced. 

All set fair, then, for Corbyn's first electoral victory? Well, no. There's a cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man's hand at the moment—but growing. It's the rise of George Galloway as independent candidate for Mayor. The bookies put him at 25/1not close to Zac and Sadiq, but well ahead of the Greens and Ukip. Those odds are a reflection of an underlying reality—the recognition factor. There are few in London who would not recognise Galloway with his beard, his three piece suit and his fedora. And he gets the kind of welcome on the streets that Boris used to get. There's a warmth to Galloway's reception in inner and outer London.

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Galloway is the most charismatic politician in Britain. His pugnacious politics are allied to a warmth, humour and charm that go a long way with voters. The contrast with Zac and Sadiq could not be starker. Both are career politicians and remain MPs at a time when Westminster is held in low esteem. And neither of them are rebels or mavericks—they hold distinctive views within their own parties, for sure, but you know that they are loyal to those parties. Galloway is so oppositional to the mainstream that he all but furnishes the dictionary definition of "political maverick." And London Mayors need some swagger, which George does not lack.

The great Mayors of the world are great characters. Not just Ken and Boris but La Guardia in New York or Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. Patriots for a city, defenders of their people, voices able to command attention. But while these characteristics are necessary for a contender, they are insufficient for victory. The Labour and Tory party machines are gearing up for the campaign and they expect to crush Galloway and the other minor parties. What are the material conditions that suggest that they might struggle?

First, demography. London is the most ethnically diverse part of the UK. This normally trends progressive so it is an inherent problem for Zac. But it is a diversity that votes diversely too—the Somalis and the Sikhs, the Muslims and the Eastern Europeans need to be won as individuals, not just as groups let alone blocs. Galloway defeated Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow—probably the most  diverse constituency in London at the time. The appeal across groups is critical—this is no box-ticking process. 

Similarly the gentrification of inner London creates a two-fold change. There is a new bohemian inner-London middle-class who are instinctively anti-establishment and are increasingly voting Green, particularly in local elections. And the outer boroughs are changing too as gentrification puts Peckham and Hoxton out of reach for many. Outer London is increasingly diverse—the change that has made Ilford North a Labour seat. But they also have a solid white, working class and lower middle class electorate too. These voters are dissatisfied with the way things are, too. They are susceptible to populist appeal. The challenge for an insurgent candidate is to unite them—the key is to be an anti-establishment figure. Zac may hope that the outer boroughs will vote for him because they are traditionally Tory and will feel that he can get some Green second preferences because of his personal track record. His problem will be that no voter loyalty can be taken for granted any more—nearly a third of voters are completely up for grabs. 

The volatility of voters is what means that the performance of candidates in the campaign proper will have a decisive impact. The debates will be hard on Zac and Sadiq—the former will carry the burden of Osborne's cuts, the latter the baggage of a Corbyn Labour Party. And neither of them are outstanding debaters. In contrast, Galloway is one of the best speakers of his generation. The debates—when they start—will be a showcase for him and they will establish an equivalence between him and the two main candidates. 

What, in the end, may well decide the election is who can pass the "Sturgeon Test." In other words, just as the SNP won control of Scotland by being identified as 'standing up for Scotland, so London is crying out for a Mayor who stands up for London—on transport, on housing, on health, on getting a fair share of wealth and growth. Who that is is an open question at the moment. But if the voters want to send a message, want to demand that things must change, they might just go for the man in the fedora—the man who would definitely scare the establishment.