In recent years, Londoners have proved a tough crowd for the Conservatives to please. Four years ago, Zac Goldsmith was defeated by over 300,000 votes in the election for Mayor of London. Labour’s Sadiq Khan ended up with a lead of nine per cent on first preferences, which rose to nearly 17 per cent after the second preferences had been added in. Goldsmith was accused of running an anti-Muslim campaign. The charge was completely false – yet it did become a prevailing media narrative. It meant Goldsmith struggled to get across his positive plans.
Then it got worse. The Brexit vote put London at odds with the rest of the country. The 2017 General Election saw the Conservatives lose six seats in London. Labour’s share of the vote in the capital was 54.5 per cent, compared to 33.1 per cent for the Conservatives. That was a Labour lead of over 21 points. The local elections in 2018 again saw a big Labour win. Overall, across the London boroughs, they were 15 points ahead. The Conservatives were on just 29 per cent and lost 92 councillors. I remember it well as I was one of them. The General Election last month was, broadly speaking, a repeat of 2017. The Conservatives gained Kensington and Carshalton and Wallington but lost Putney and Richmond. So we were stuck on just 21 seats – out of 73.
All these figures are rather daunting for Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London. The election takes place on May 7th. In just three months from now they will be sending out the postal votes. Labour has a huge campaigning army in London and Khan has been eager to use City Hall resources for his personal promotion. It would be foolish to deny that Bailey is the underdog in this fight. Indeed probably better to make a virtue of it. His “back story” is about facing challenges. In his early twenties he spent five years “sofa surfing”. As a child, he grew up in an overcrowded council house in Bracewell Road, north Kensington, near the Grenfell Tower. His family is from Jamaica. Shaun’s father was a lorry driver. Before getting involved in politics he started his own youth charity.
Bailey is an articulate and authentic Conservative voice. But I worry that his campaign so far has been too cautious, too risk averse. The danger at the moment is that he is ignored, as the media shrug that the election result is a foregone conclusion. Some bold policy statements are needed. He needs to make the weather. Provided that Bailey believes in them, it doesn’t matter if they are contentious. You can’t please everyone in poltiics and it is a mistake to try.
Social media is the underdog’s friend. It can be a great leveller as a way of candidates reaching people when they have scarce financial and physical resources. Rory Stewart proved adept at using it when he stood for the Tory leadership last year. Ultimately he floundered due to his lack of personal credibility and his pronouncements being at odds with mainsteam Conservative thinking. But his campaign messaging did catch the attention of the media and some of the wider public. Now he is standing as an independent for Mayor of London. I suspect he will drop out before May and that even if he doesn’t, he won’t do Bailey much harm in terms of vote splitting. That is because any Conservatives who vote for Stewart would have the option of using second preference to vote for Bailey.
Say what you like about Stewart though, he does know how to tweet. Take this:
— Rory Stewart (@RoryStewartUK) January 16, 2020
Just finding people to talk is not hard. People are usually happy to tell their story – in this case, an ex rough sleeper called Andy. It is not necessary for Andy to say he will vote for Rory. Not necessary for Andy to back Rory’s plan to tackle
rough sleeping. Not even necessary for Rory to come up with any such plan. Just for Rory to show he is listening, that he cares, that he has empathy, that he has curiosity…
Substance is lacking from Stewart and substance does matter. But other politicians could learn from Stewart to have the confidence to adopt that personal, conversational, quirky style.
Old-fashioned campaigning has a role too. I would suggest that Bailey holds a big public meeting in each of the 32 London boroughs between now and May 7th. The more snarling Lefty hecklers that pitch up the better – it should enliven proceedings. Where there are Conservative MPs or councillors, naturally they should be involved in promoting and participating in the meetings. It should be seen as a way of encouraging new recruits to the Conservatives as well as discovering local concerns and wooing floating voters.
The policies need an anti-establishment edge. Transport for London is an appallingly wasteful outfit. Proposals to cut its bloated spending and cut fares should be put forward. It owns 5,700 acres. Selling land for development could provide new housing and provide capital funding for transport improvements. The new housing does not need to be ugly. There should be a firm pledge that no more tower blocks will be approved. Bureaucracy at City Hall should be slashed to allow a big cut in the Council Tax precept.
But the biggest issue is crime. The Mayor of London keeps dodging responsibility. Why is violent crime rising in London when it is falling in most of the rest of England? Greg Hands, the Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham, has written in the Evening Standard about the example of Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York City. Just having more police is not enough. They need to be effective.
Fair-minded Londoners would agree that Khan has been a failure when it comes to fighting crime, as well as on the other key issues. After this month even those who voted against Brexit will tend to accept it is time to move on. Some recent signs have been encouraging for London Conservatives. Yesterday I reported on Council by-elections in Brent which showed some big swings our way. Some recent opinion polling since the General Election suggests Conservative popularity has actually increased. Opinium shows a lead of 17 per cent nationally.
So let Bailey be Bailey. The odds might be against him, but he should be a Happy Warrior. That defiant spirit would then spur donors and campaigners to help him. If London Conservatives are to persuade voters in the capital to believe in them again then self-belief is a necessary prerequisite. Boris Johnson has shown how far it can take you.