The Tory race to succeed Boris is finally showing signs of flickering into life. Solid early declarers Stephen Greenhalgh, Ivan Massow and Andrew Boff mingle with the flirters of Zac Goldsmith and Michael Liebreich. Not to mention the Jeremy Paxmans of this world and, destined to break London Tory hearts, Seb Coe.
You could make a good case for any of them. Whoever becomes the nominee is going to face the fight of their career, so it’s worth knowing what hurdles lie ahead in order to judge who has the legs to clear them.
1. You start half a million votes behind
To become Mayor of London you need somewhere between 800,000 and a million votes (1st & 2nd preferences). Based on Londoners voting history in elections of similar turnouts over the last few years, a generic Labour candidate can expect anywhere between around 600,000 and 800,000 votes. A Tory could expect only around half a million (unless you’re Boris, of course).
So whoever becomes the Tory candidate starts roughly half a million votes behind the winning line. Or to put it another way, you need to be at least ten points more popular than your party (which is roughly the Labour lead over the Tories in most London polls).
Therefore, the candidate must have the ability to appeal beyond the party base. This is not a luxury; it is the only way to reach the million-vote target.
2. You’re on your own
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a London Tory party ‘machine’, only a collection of local parties. Some are excellent. Others are, shall we say, motivated by other things.
On both Boris campaigns, although we had excellent support from the party leadership, we had to build a grassroots organisation virtually from scratch with relatively meagre resources. Compare this to the London Labour Party, which is well organised, motivated and handsomely backed by the unions. It’s no surprise they turn out the vote accordingly.
Therefore, the candidate and his/her team will need to build their own grassroots machine in a very short space of time, which means in reality they need a big enough budget to buy it. Therefore they need the force of personality that will attract donors and inspire as many volunteers to get involved as possible.
3. No one knows who you are (unless you’re Seb Coe)
Now that the two most high profile politicians in London have departed the stage, those wishing to follow them face a struggle to be recognised, even if they have solid political reputations.
This is less of a problem for the Labour candidates because in a ‘no name’ race, more voters will simply go with their normal party preference, which as we know, gives Labour a ten-point advantage.
There’s no doubt about it, the Tory candidate will need a reasonably high profile or (if they don’t have it already) quickly develop it. They don’t necessarily need to be a celebrity (in fact that may count as a negative). But they do need to stand out as an individual, someone with their own opinions who isn’t afraid to defy the party line. Just another blue rosette will struggle to be recognised and, accordingly, will have next to no chance of winning.
4. The core issues haven’t changed and favour Labour
Londoners nearly always cite their most important issues for the Mayor as transport, crime and housing in varying order. Sometimes jobs/economy break into the top three, as does the NHS. But in the main, and in mayoral elections especially, these three are always voter priorities.
This time around, it is safe to say that housing and its affordability will be top, swiftly followed by transport (in particular the cost of tube/bus fares). These are two issues tailor made for Labour. Whoever is their candidate will promise to make housing and fares cheaper. It will motivate their base and, being the insurgent, they stand a good chance of being believed by everyone else.
The good news is tube/bus fares won’t be as controversial this time around, as TfL privately expect all candidates to promise fare cuts and will doubtless have squirreled away some money to pay for it.
The bigger problem is housing. The Tory candidate must come up with a compelling and original offer. This issue could be as big in 2016 as fares were in 2012 and knife crime was in 2008. The problem is that Tories generally aren’t trusted on housing (despite Boris & Deputy Mayor Blakeway’s record of delivery). The candidate cannot rely on repeating the Boris record. They must go beyond their comfort zone and propose radical ideas in order to get a hearing.
With these two issues likely to dominate, the nominee will have find themselves in a populist, cost of living election that will be fought on very narrow terms by Labour. The temptation will be to try and ‘rise above’ this and campaign on broader themes. There is huge danger in this. Spending too much time talking about other worthy subjects like devolution, air quality or garden bridges may demonstrate breadth, but will almost certainly end in defeat.
5. The doughnut is going stale
Boris’ electoral coalition in 2008 and 2012 was known as the ‘doughnut plus jam’. That is to say we turned out Tory voters in outer London and Tory leaning voters in parts of inner London (plus many others) to counter Labour’s traditional strengths.
But in 2012 Boris lost significant ground in outer London (a problem the Tories have faced since 2010 and continues today). Disillusionment with all politicians in places like Romford and Bexley was high. Many people with long commutes, expensive season tickets and uncertainty over their jobs, who voted Boris in 2008, simply stayed at home.
The disillusioned suburbanites show no sign of cheering up and you can understand why. With suburban rail services little better than cattle carts, at the price of a small mortgage, with housing getting more expensive and TfL’s war on the motorist in full swing, many of these voters have no incentive to vote in mayoral elections.
That’s a huge problem for any Tory candidate. Because for every Labour vote in inner London, a Tory probably needs two in outer London to compete. So although the nominee needs to appeal beyond their base, they absolutely cannot afford to ignore it.
So it’s simple really. The ideal Tory candidate must be trusted by the party base, but be able to reach out beyond it too. They need to be seen as independently minded, with radical ideas to address the problems Londoners care most about. They need a bit of spark about them that gets media attention and sets them apart from other politicians. Sound like anyone familiar?
Sadly Boris won’t be on the ballot paper (in this election anyway). And although this may make glum reading, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Labour can be beaten (see here) with the right candidate. So it’s up to all those involved in the selection process – however constituted – to pick a candidate that has a chance of dealing with these challenges.
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. Follow him on twitter at @alexkcrowley