There’s still almost two years to go before Londoners pick their next Mayor but there’s growing interest in who might replace Boris Johnson – now more than halfway through what is likely to be his final term – at City Hall.
Last week brought two polls which gave completely contradictory steers on who Labour supporters prefer as their 2016 candidate – the first, a YouGov poll for the Standard, named Diane Abbott as the top choice while LabourList readers put Sadiq Khan in pole position.
Those wondering why there’s no similar YouGov poll for the Conservatives should read this piece by Alex Crowley, Political Director of Boris’s two campaigns.
As well as addressing the shortage of potential Tory runners, Alex says this about voter expectations:
“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.”
Or as Adam Bienkov said last year:
“Londoners do not choose their mayoral candidates by the colour of their rosette.”
Both Adam and Alex are 100% correct but this is an important truth which often goes unrecognised by the party activists who select candidates and even some who aspire to the role.
It’s fine when picking a candidate for the local council, or choosing a would-be MP to obey the whips for four years, to decide on the basis of who last came out campaigning with you or who bought a raffle ticket at the local party fundraiser.
Candidates in such elections won’t have to make firm commitments about how they’ll personally tackle voters’ concerns and will be able to answer awkward questions by mouthing lines from party HQ.
Unless they’re likely to end up in the cabinet, or are a known gaffe-maker, they’ll be free to campaign without much media scrutiny.
And, best of all, they’ll be able to secure their hoped-for job on a minority of the vote so a campaign focused entirely on hard-core party supporters will do you just fine.
In a Mayoral election none of that is true.
Londoners expect a candidate’s manifesto to be their personal blueprint for the city, and want credible, provable solutions to the problems they face.
The media attention is sustained and tough – as it should be when you want to run an administration of one – and candidates who aren’t on top of their brief will pay a heavy price.
But the most important difference is that you simply cannot win on a 33% vote share – to become Mayor of London you need a minimum of 50.01% of the (valid) votes cast.
In each of the four elections to date, getting over that threshold meant winning the second preferences of those who preferred one of the other candidates and voted for them in the first round.
Like Ken and Boris, the post 2016 Mayor will need to appeal to people far outside the party which bankrolls their campaign.
This need for a ‘big tent’ offer has important implications for the policies which candidates put forward and the schemes they support.
As a timely example, Labour yesterday welcomed plans for a new bridge in East London.
Green party AM Jenny Jones says support for the scheme would mean there’d be “no chance” of her party advising supporters to give Labour’s Mayoral candidate their 2nd preferences.
Given that the Greens were the third largest party in the 2012 Mayoral and London Assembly elections and are doing pretty well at the moment, that’s a lot of votes Labour risks going elsewhere.
In a theoretical run-off it’s possible that enough Green supporters could prefer airport bashing, environmentally friendly Zac Goldsmith to bridge supporting Sadiq Khan to give the Tories a third term at City Hall.
Of course all politicians need to ultimately take a stance and it’s inevitable that some policies will put off certain groups of voters.
But in a race where you need a majority of votes cast, it’s important to go into the election understanding that you really do need to earn every vote rather than assuming, for example, that all green second preferences will go to Labour or every UKIP vote will transfer to the Tories.
And it’s vital that selectorates honestly assess the line-up of potential candidates and pick the one best able to speak to and for the whole of London, not the one which plays best within the party.