The New Year has not started well for Mayor Sadiq Khan. Despite boasting during the election campaign that there would be “zero strikes” if he was elected Mayor, within just days of 2017 beginning, tube drivers went on strike bringing chaos to London and adding to the woes of the capital’s hard pressed commuters.
More strikes are threatened. This of course is the latest of at least six other key election promises he has cynically dumped within his first nine months of office.
Gone within weeks was his blanket pledge to freeze train fares for all. Gone, his commitment to make every housing development have 50% affordable housing. Gone the commitment for two million trees planted during his mayoralty and gone his pledge to maintain 32,000 police officers on London’s streets.
Sadiq Khan has calculated that making promises and cynically breaking them early in the life of his term in office will not harm his future electoral chances. Current polling tends to bear out that view as he continues to enjoy majority support amongst the London public, shaped in part by a slick media operation from City Hall that manages news at a level not seen by the Labour party since the heady days of Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair.
Despite the best efforts of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly, Sadiq Khan’s breach of faith with the public has gone relatively unnoticed.
To rectify this and hold the Mayor to account in the minds of the public and not just the London political bubble, the Conservative Party would do well to lay the ground early so as to mount a serious challenge to the Mayor in 2020. To do that they need to address the three critical failings of the candidate selection process for Mayor that put the Conservatives at a disadvantage from the outset of any future election process.
By the time the 2016 Conservative Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith was finally selected, his Labour rival and eventual winner Sadiq Khan had been in place for three week’s in the crucial first month of the autumn parliamentary season on top of which he had been enjoying a free run at the London evening news headlines as the Labour contest dominated the local media. By contrast Conservative candidates confined the election narrative to party members even though an open primary campaign was underway.
After Sadiq had been adopted as Labour’s candidate his team hit the ground running with policy announcement, re-announcement and re-launch whilst Conservative candidates debated amongst themselves for those important three weeks. Selecting in October just to coincide with the Conservative Party conference is simply surrendering the opening salvos in a campaign to Labour and should not be repeated. The first change required is to bring forward the process not by 3 weeks, but by at least 12 months.
The CCHQ hierarchy understands the value of early selection of candidates in battleground Parliamentary seats, sometimes years in advance of an election, so it makes perfect sense for them to replicate this with early selection of the Conservative London Mayoral candidate too. It is, after all, an executive position commanding a £12 billion budget.
It’s true a candidate can get a poll boost from selection at a high profile event as is the Conservative party conference, but next time around the Conservative candidate for Mayor faces a tough challenge of overturning a 310,000 vote majority and they will need time to do that.
Planning a campaign to win over London’s complex electorate requires a huge amount of preparation – something that is held back by late selection that leaves only seven months until election day for London to familiarise themselves with the principal contender to win the election.
Prior to selection there will be no opposition voice. On Brexit, Housing and Transport Sadiq Khan will be able to present his case and make all the running with only tenuous scrutiny from the media. The Conservative Group on the Assembly have relatively little cut through with the media when up against Labour’s tax-payer funded Mayors communication team. An official mayoral candidate would become a “go to” spokesperson with the resources to mount an effective communications programme.
We should learn from Labour who benefitted from this in 2012 when Ken Livingstone seeking to return to the Mayoralty after being defeated by Boris in 2008, was re-selected officially in late 2010. While not ultimately winning, he gave Boris a good run for his money by bedding in early and working with the Labour Assembly Members to get information and ask questions all aimed at supporting his campaign.
It’s worth noting while he didn’t win, his vote share was up on 2008 securing 40.3% in 2012 as opposed to 37.0% in 2008 and with the second round 2nd round 48.47% as opposed to 46.82%. Interestingly, as the incumbent with four years of mainstream media, Mayor Boris Johnson won that election with just 60,000 more votes than Zac Goldsmith secured in 2016 which underlines the potential gains for the Conservatives if they select early.
To do that, on the ground the Conservative Party have much work to do which will require energy and stamina in equal proportion from the candidate and the hard-working London voluntary party. Yet in 2020 at the time of the next Mayoral election they will not be able to count on extra help from outside the capital if the next General Election is indeed on the same date as the Fixed Term Parliament Act dictates.
Again, we should learn from Labour and organise accordingly. Sadiq Khan started his campaign to be Mayor back in November 2013, almost 30 months before the actual election. As Labour’s London election chief he prepared Labour’s ground teams for the then London borough elections of 2014.
His work there laid the platform not just for his success in 2016 as Mayor but also the General Election success Labour had in London by defeating four Conservative MPs when the rest of the country turned to the Conservatives. His work also was the foundation for his own success at winning the Labour nomination as he drew on the loyalty of many Labour Party activists as well as riding high on the Momentum coat tails of Jeremy Corbyn.
Finally, the organisation of mayoral campaign funding needs revising. A Mayoral campaign is wholly independent of the Conservative Party HQ. The rules are designed so that the candidate assumes the financial risk of running for Mayor.
A long campaign will require considerable funds and if it remains the ultimate responsibility of a candidate to both raise those funds, and campaign then it is most likely his or her campaigning efforts will be diluted. Labour have the unions and will spend far less time fund raising than the Conservatives so it makes sense CCHQ could take more of a leading role.
At the moment it is reasonable to assume Sadiq Khan will on balance seek a second term unless he is presented with the opportunity of seeking the Labour Party leadership. To win London, the Conservatives will be fighting a Labour incumbent who will have broken many promises, leveraged huge debts for London and failed even by his own standards to provide the transport infrastructure and housing targets he pledged.
But that alone may not be enough to defeat him unless the candidate we choose has the time and the resources to effectively make the alternative case heard across London’s diverse and complex electorate. Now is the time to lay the foundations for such a campaign because it is clear from his actions that the present Mayor feels he is not accountable to those he serves for his actions.