Alex Crowley was Research Director and then Political Director of Boris Johnson’s London Mayoral election campaigns in 2008 and 2012. He is also the author of ‘Victory in London’, a book about how those campaigns were won.
YouGov recently asked Londoners who would be the best Labour candidate for Mayor. Tessa Jowell topped the poll with a mere 11 per cent. Diane Abbott (9 per cent) and David Lammy (6 per cent) completed the top three. 30 per cent didn’t know and 30 per cent said none of them.
If you asked YouGov to run a similar poll for Tory candidates they would, I suspect, politely decline your commission. After all, you can’t run a poll on candidates that don’t exist.
Mayor of London is one of the best jobs in British politics. You have a budget of some £17 billion. You decide what happens with transport, policing, housing and planning (among many other things) in one of the most important cities in the world.
There is no serious opposition or legislature to block you. No restive backbenchers to quell. No Cabinet to soothe. Scant media scrutiny. You are Putin, but with a legitimate electoral mandate. And yet, two years out from the next election (and with the incumbent almost certainly moving on) the Tory sign up form is blank. Why?
The argument usually runs something like this: London’s a Labour city, so we’re bound to lose. Besides, it’s their turn. In any case we would surely need a big celebrity to follow up Boris. There is some merit in this argument. But before we give up on one of the most powerful and influential political positions in Britain, let’s look again at that Labour candidates poll.
Jowell, Abbott, Lammy, Adonis, Khan, Lawrence. Sensible names. Two with solid records in government. Yet the most any of them could manage was 11 per cent. Taken together, they poll 40 per cent. To win the mayoralty, you really need 50.1 per cent (after second preferences).
Yes, Labour gave us a kicking in the local and European elections. Yes, they do indeed lay claim to large parts of the city. Yes, it will be difficult to win a third Tory term at City Hall. However, these factors lose their potency because a mayoral election is a contest between individuals, not parties. And Labour has lost their star performer.
Some Labour activists may be relieved that Ken Livingstone has (probably) gone into retirement but the uncomfortable fact is that he’s never polled below 48 per cent in a mayoral election.
Where is their knockout candidate to replace him? Which seasoned Labour politician with a London base and high media profile is waiting in the wings? Eddie Izzard? (He would claim to be the second comedian in the role, but Boris was an elected politician before he won City Hall. Mr Izzard’s day job is somewhat different.) Alan Johnson? (Potentially good, but where is he?) Lord Sugar? (Would love to see his tax returns).
The truth is that candidate doesn’t exist. If the Labour selection contest were run tomorrow, according to YouGov, Diane Abbott would win. On the basis you only need to be better than your opponent, the mayoral election in 2016 is indeed competitive. Whisper it: even winnable for the Tories.
And I don’t even think we need a celebrity. The epic Boris vs Ken bouts in 2008 and 2012 left Londoners tired with box office politics (in fact, Boris’ celebrity was one of his biggest negatives). As things stand, 2016 is likely to be the first mayoral election fought between two relative unknowns. Two new faces whom voters will evaluate afresh.
That may not be such a bad thing. Ken gave the mayoralty a solid foundation (even if it was occasionally bolstered with Venezuelan petro dollars), and Boris has taken it to new heights. Maybe now is the time to see City Hall evolve into a proving ground for rising stars, not a place for those haven’t fitted in at Westminster, or are near the end of their political careers.
Don’t get me wrong, if Boris changed his mind and ran for a third term, or Seb Coe suddenly gave up his ambition to run the BBC Trust, IOC etc, or Justin King decided to ditch business and leap into politics, I’d be delighted. Sign me up.
Or if Alan Johnson suddenly re-emerged with ideas and a machine then fair enough, over to you. But with two years to go (which is the point at which Boris started his last re-election campaign) we would surely be seeing some activity from these names by now. Or even gossip. Who knows, maybe it will be a last minute scramble of heavyweights?
Either way, at this stage the field is open and time is running out. The general election truncates the mayoral timetable, meaning a candidate probably won’t be selected until the conference of 2015, leaving only six months until polling day, in May 2016.
Londoners understand that the mayoral contest is about choosing an individual. They want someone who is credible, beholden to no party or sectional interest and can faithfully represent London in all its diversity. If successful, that person could go on to become a national figure with influence far beyond that of a backbench MP, local government leader or maybe even Cabinet Minister.
Please form an orderly queue…