Khan is London's new Mayor, but how much heart should Labour take from the victory?by John Curtice / May 7, 2016 / Leave a comment
Were you up for Sadiq Khan? Probably not given the failure of London Elects (once again) to announce formally the outcome of the contest for the country’s biggest electoral office before most people had gone wearily to bed. So just in case you did miss it, Khan did indeed win, securing 57 per cent of the vote after voters’ second preferences had been distributed. This result was exactly in line (for once!) with the figures anticipated by the opinion polls.
After 24 hours during which Labour losses of English council seats proved to be not only well below the 150 that had been widely anticipated, but also a little less than the losses suffered by the Conservatives, Khan’s victory was the apparent icing on the cake for Jeremy Corbyn. He, after all, had delivered a major electoral prize that Gordon Brown had lost and Ed Miliband had proved unable to regain.
But, of course, it is not quite as simple as that. It was not the Conservative party that won the London mayoralty in 2012—it was Boris Johnson, the individual. Labour won the parallel London Assembly election quite comfortably. On the two ballots for that institution, the party enjoyed leads over the Conservatives of ten points in the constituency battles (where a “first past the post” system is used to elect Assembly members in much the same way that MPs are elected) and nine points on the “list vote” (a system that “tops up” Assembly membership on a proportional basis.) However, in a testament to his personal popularity, Boris Johnson still managed to secure a four point lead over Ken Livingstone in the first preference vote for Mayor.
The Conservatives’ standard bearer this time, Zac Goldsmith, is not in Johnson’s class when it comes to charisma. Nor, in truth, is Khan in the same league as Livingstone on that score—in Livingstone’s hey day, that is. Thus, despite the attempt of the Conservatives to turn the contest into a judgement on the alleged unfitness of Khan to be Mayor—it was alleged that Khan shared platforms with extremists and was thus unsuited for the office—this time around the outcome was always likely to turn on the popularity of the parties rather than that of the individuals in question. And given that in London Labour enjoyed a nine point lead over the Conservatives in last year’s (otherwise disastrous) general election, that meant that Khan should win quite comfortably.
So the crucial question is not did he win, but how well did he win? John McDonnell argued that Labour had made progress outside of London in the local election results on Thursday. Did Labour make such “progress” in London? To that question the answer appears to be no.
First, let us assess the validity of our premise that the outcome of the mayoral contest this time is largely a reflection of the popularity of the parties. That was clearly the case. Sadiq Khan enjoyed a nine point lead over Zac Goldsmith on the first preference vote, only a little below the eleven point lead that Labour secured on both ballots for the London Assembly. The two figures are not exactly the same, but the difference is not of a size that suggests that personality (or personal mud-slinging) mattered much.
Meanwhile, as will already be evident, there is nothing very special about Labour winning in London by nine points. It is no better than the party managed twelve months ago. Meanwhile, at 42 per cent on the constituency and 40 per cent on the list, Labour’s share of the vote in the London Assembly contest was no better than it was in the last Assembly election four years ago. That outcome ensured that the party failed to win an overall majority in the Assembly as it had hoped to do.
So the best that can be said of the result for Labour in London is that the party managed to repeat the relatively favourable result it secured in the capital twelve months ago. That makes it difficult for Corbyn’s critics to argue that his leadership of the party is so toxic in voters’ eyes that they are leaving the party in droves. But equally there is little sign—even in his own backyard—that Corbyn’s distinctive style of politics is putting his party back on the path to victory. And it is for the latter that his parliamentary colleagues are hungry.