Election Countdown

Could Sadiq Khan lose?

There is nervous talk in the mayor’s camp that May’s election could be close. Are the nerves justified?

March 25, 2024
Image: Gary Roberts photography / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Gary Roberts photography / Alamy Stock Photo

What on earth is Sadiq Khan worried about? On 2nd May he hopes to be elected as London’s mayor for the third time. Polls give him a two-to-one lead over his main rival. The whole city has been moving steadily left for decades. In the general election four years ago, even as Labour was being thrashed nationally, it won two-thirds of the seats in the capital. These days, Londoners are emphatically pro-European and anti-Conservative.

Even so, there is nervous talk in Khan’s camp that the election could be close, and even that Susan Hall, his Conservative opponent, might just beat him. Are the nerves justified?

Those who advise caution make four points.

First, Khan’s personal rating has slumped since he was re-elected three years ago. Last time more voters said he was doing well than badly. Now just 27 per cent tell YouGov they are satisfied with him, while 45 per cent say dissatisfied. Last year’s extension of Ulez—the Ultra Low Emission Zone—to outer London did him no favours, as the Uxbridge byelection showed.

Second, last time Khan won only narrowly, after polls had put him well ahead. Five weeks before the last election, YouGov put him 21 points ahead of Shaun Bailey, his Conservative opponent. On the day, Khan’s margin of victory was just 5 per cent. The campaign cost Khan votes; it also looks as if the polls overstated his lead all along. This time, YouGov’s latest poll shows Khan 25 per cent ahead of Susan Hall. Maybe the same two factors will be at work this time, causing the gap to close sharply again.

Third, the voting system has changed. In 2021 Khan benefitted from the second preferences of Green and Liberal Democrat supporters. These stretched Khan’s victory after the second count to 11 per cent. The second vote has now been abolished. The winner will be decided by first-past-the-post. In a close contest, Green and Lib Dem voters won’t be able to come to Khan’s rescue.

Finally, London’s large Muslim population may desert Labour because of Gaza. Muslims comprise 15 per cent of London’s population. Until now a large majority has voted Labour. Any significant desertion, even if they just stay at home, would hurt Khan. 

On the other side of the debate is the elephant in the polling booth: the fact that Tory support has slumped throughout Britain since 2021. London is no exception. According to YouGov, just 17 per cent of Londoners now say they would vote Conservative in a general election—their lowest ever figure, and 35 per cent behind Labour. Hall’s current support, 24 per cent, means she is already outperforming her party. She probably needs to lift that to at least 40 per cent if she is to defeat Khan. That seems quite a stretch given how badly her party is out of favour, even if the polls are understating her current support, as they did Bailey’s in 2021.

It is also an open question whether the change in the voting system will do Khan much damage. In previous contests, anti-Tories could give their first vote to the Lib Dems, Greens or other candidates, safe in the knowledge that their second preference would help Khan over the line. This time, with voters having to choose just one candidate, tactical voting could come into play, with support for the smaller parties being squeezed and Khan picking up many of their votes. If so, he will be safe.

That still leaves the issue of Muslim voters. Of course, Khan himself is Muslim. Will this prevent his co-religionists deserting him, or at least cause fewer of them to do so? In any event, how many Muslims (and others) will have Gaza at the front of their minds when they decide who they want as mayor? We won’t know for sure until after 2nd May, when we get the detailed results, and can compare strong Muslim areas with the rest of London.

Likewise the new rules about voters needing to show their ID when they go to vote. Some in Labour fear that the party will suffer more in London than elsewhere, because of its young and ethnically diverse electorate. We are six weeks from knowing whether this will make any real difference.

All in all, the reasons for caution suggest Khan is unlikely to win by the huge margin that Labour would enjoy in London if voters were choosing a government rather than mayor. But Khan losing? That would be extraordinary. Taking into account the headwinds that he is facing, I reckon that a par score would be a majority of 15 per cent. Below 10 per cent and Rishi Sunak would have reason to smile. Above 20 per cent, and Khan should be delighted—and so should Keir Starmer.