We are that teasing, flirty stage in the nomination process for the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London. We know that Andrew Boff, a London Assembly member, is seeking selection. I expect that his colleague on the London Assembly, Shaun Bailey, will too. We also know that Kevin Davis, the former Leader of Kingston Council, is standing. Justine Greening, the Putney MP and former cabinet minister, has ruled herself out, despite having been dubbed the “front runner.” James Cleverly MP, the Conservative Deputy Chairman and a former London Assembly member, is said to be considering putting his name forward. The businessman and anti Brexit campaigner Richard Tice is reported to have applied. I hope my friend Stephen Greenhalgh has a go – when he was Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, our city became a safer place to live. It is now becoming more dangerous.
No doubt other names will come and go. But for the Conservatives considering who to choose as our Mayoral candidate for 2020, we should start by considering what a Conservative Mayor of London would be for and what sort of campaign should be run. It is a very good start that we are getting on with it – as Mark Wallace said when he broke the news. One of the reasons that Zac Goldsmith lost in 2016 was that he was selected late. This fed a very damaging narrative that he didn’t really want the job. Selecting early is just as important as who we select in terms of the campaign.
Of course the choice of candidate is important. In the system of directly elected Mayors, it creates extra uncertainty. Many voters look beyond the Party label to what the individual candidate has to offer. Boris Johnson won in 2008, despite that while the Conservatives were popular nationally, they were still unpopular in London. His re-election in 2012 was even more impressive, given that the Conservatives weren’t even particularly popular nationally that year. For a Labour supporter to vote for a Conservative candidate in a General Election is felt to be a contradiction in terms. But for such a person to vote for a Conservative Mayoral candidate is not so remarkable. It is important to remember how emphatic many were before the 2008 election that it was “impossible” for a Conservative to win, and that Boris would be wasting his time to stand. His courage in disregarding those well meaning gloomadon poppers was heroic.
I don’t think it is enough to say our choice of candidate should be “to send a message” about how modern and diverse we are. Londoners are not idiots. Offering them a candidate who has nothing to say beyond platitudinous boasts about what a “positive” and “caring” person they are will not command much attention. They need to offer solutions to the problems Londoners care about – rising crime and the housing shortage are the obvious ones. But there are others. For instance, I would suggest that any potential Conservative candidate should go and see John Redwood – who wrote about his ideas for reducing traffic jams on this site on Friday.
So we start by saying we need a campaign with Conservative policies that address people’s concerns. Identity politics should not be the theme that dominates. The media are interested in it, but the voters much less so. For example, in the 2015 General Election, with a male leader, the Conservatives had a three per cent bigger lead among male voters than female voters. In the 2017 General Election, with a female leader, we had a six per cent bigger lead from the men than the women.
Some campaign strategists note the particular importance in local elections – even so grand a local election as that for a Mayor of London – of “getting out the vote.” In the General Election last year the turnout was 70.1 per cent in London. In the Mayoral election for 2016, it was 45.3 per cent. Sadiq Khan was elected with 1,310,143 votes. Last year at the General Election, the Conservatives did exceptionally badly – but still got 1,269,000 votes. Even so, those figures do suggest that a “core vote” strategy of mobilising Conservative voters in the suburbs would not be enough. That is not to say that it should be disregarded. Boris was very strong on motivating the Daily Telegraph readers of Surbiton and Sidcup to the polls – which, as noted above, didn’t stop attracting non Conservatives as well. So we need a “core vote strategy”. Absolutely vital. Just that it is not enough.
The potential advantage of a long campaign is to have plenty of targeting. Part of that must be that our candidate spends plenty of time in each of the 32 London boroughs with specific pledges for each borough and old fashioned public meetings. But the targeting should also be to groups. This is where an alternative type of identity politics is relevant. Motorists are concerned about different matters to commuters on public transport. Within that, motorcyclists have some grievances that are distinct from car drivers. Bus passengers have different concerns to tube passengers. The crime rate – and so the level of concern about crime – varies from one district of London to another. There are different priorities from those who rent to those who own. The poor will tend to be interested in the offer of a cut in the Council Tax precept, or a cut in fares. The rich might regard a few pounds a week as a rather footling matter. The list goes on.
With all that activity beneath the radar, there needs to be a big central message. Given the presumption that the Conservative candidate will not have a chance of winning, it will be hard to get general attention for more than one point. My own conclusion is that it should be about crime – and knife crime and gang violence in particular. The incumbent Sadiq Khan has plenty of failures and plenty of broken promises. But crime is the one that really matters the most to people. Pointing out his record is the easy part – the grim reality is widely understood. Khan’s response of buck passing and complaining about a lack of money is a feeble response. First of all it isn’t true – he is responsible for policing in the capital and the available resources could be used much better. But suppose he was telling the truth. What a counsel of despair. Why bother to vote for man whose pitch is that he has failed – but it is not his fault as he is powerless to do any better?
An effective Conservative campaign must go beyond challenging that and offer a credible alternative. A robust approach to stop and search must be part of that – as well as giving the police power to chase moped thieves. We must then make the 2020 vote about more than the election of an individual – but a referendum on those crime fighting proposals.
Others will have their own priorities. The point is to decide on what the campaigning message should be – then decide which candidate would be the most effective standard bearer for that crusade.