A Tory mayoral victory would be tough to achieve—unlikely, even. But tough and unlikely aren't the same as impossibleby Mark Wallace / October 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
Shaun Bailey, the newly selected Conservative candidate for London mayor, faces an uphill battle. When Ladbrokes tweeted that they were pricing his chances at 3/1, the political scientist Philip Cowley commented that it was “stingy,” and proposed 500/1. He was only half-joking.
The reasons for pessimism about Bailey’s chances are clear. London traditionally votes Labour, falling on the left of a range of economic, social and cultural divides which have come to define our politics. Young, ethnically diverse, priced out of housing into barely more affordable rentals—a host of the capital’s demographic indicators flash red warning lights for Conservatives.
The ballot box brings no better news. Labour has won at every election since 1997. In 2016, London was the only region of England to vote Remain and handed Sadiq Khan its mayoralty. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn won an outright majority of the vote, and this year 90 Tory councillors in London lost their seats.
That isn’t just about the issues and the changing face of the capital’s electorate. London Labour itself is booming. A sizeable share of Labour’s membership—estimates vary from 20 per cent to 48 per cent—live there.
Even at the most pessimistic end, that would suggest something pushing 100,000 people.
I’m aware of some local Labour branches—not constituency parties, but the next layer down, covering one or two council wards—that claim over 1,000 members.
That allowed Labour to deploy hundreds of activists to target seats in polling day last year, allowing for vast Get Out The Vote operations in seats like Croydon Central, where Gavin Barwell increased the Tory vote but still lost by a margin of over 5,000 due to Labour’s surge.
By contrast, the decline of the Conservative grassroots has struck in London as it has elsewhere. The turnout figures for Bailey’s selection imply a total membership of around 15,000. That’s an underestimate—peculiarly strict rules attached to the ballot denied a vote to various members—but not by a lot.
So the new mayoral candidate will find his troops outnumbered, in a city which started left-wing and has in recent years become more so. He will be up against a polished incumbent, whom it must be said retains a fair bit of sympathy after the Conservative campaign mounted against him in 2016 indulged in messaging that made many Tories cringe and incensed many voters.
Bailey was selected against a backdrop of Brexit and a troubled government. And, unlike Boris Johnson, who held City Hall as a blue fastness for eight years, he does not enter the race as a celebrity.
So what can he do to be in with a chance? It will be tough—unlikely, frankly—but tough and unlikely are not the same as impossible.
For a start, the current political conditions are irrelevant. The election is in 2020. For good or ill, Brexit will not be a hypothetical, it will be a past event. Theresa May will almost certainly have passed into memory with it.
It’s not even absolutely sure that Jeremy Corbyn will still be Labour leader—and Labour’s hard left agenda, which so inspires some people, threatens to turn out others who are appalled by it.
There’s no guarantee that conditions by 2020 will be more favourable, but assumptions about what they will be should be taken with a pinch of salt.
There is just enough time for Bailey to make a name for himself if he is able. The Conservatives selected their 2016 candidate late, in September 2015. That contributed to the disastrous choice of a shrill and unattractive campaign in a belated effort to cut through.
This time, they have selected a year earlier, meaning he has more than 18 months as the voice of opposition to Khan—a platform that he must use to lay out a clear critique of his record and a positive alternative offer.
There is plenty for him to talk about. The incumbent spins a good game but has not distinguished himself an activist mayor. Scourges like violent gang crime afflict the lives of many people all across London.
Bailey himself has expertise and insight on issues like poverty, youth alienation and social division, and must seek the chance to go toe to toe with Khan on why he appears so lackadaisical in the face of such problems.
Nor is Labour’s ground operation the invincible force which it is sometimes portrayed to be. They have the numbers, certainly, but they underperformed their own hype in May, failing to follow through on promises to sweep the Tories out of flagship boroughs like Wandsworth.
You’d still be taking a serious risk with your money by betting on a Conservative victory next time round in London. To be in with a chance, Bailey needs to hit the airwaves and the doorsteps now—and not stop until 10pm on polling day in May 2020.