With less than a week until London chooses its next mayor, polling indicates that Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan is set to buck the national trend and win a second term relatively easily.
Data from pollster YouGov suggest that across the UK, the ruling Conservatives enjoy about 44 per cent support, 11 points more than Labour. But London, for years a barometer of voters’ mood, “has shifted towards being a Labour city”, according to Tony Travers, director of the London School of Economics’ London research group.
Analysts attribute the change to the capital’s population being younger, and more ethnically diverse and pro-EU than Britain as a whole.
Polling by Savanta ComRes last week placed Khan 13 points ahead of his Conservative challenger, London assembly member Shaun Bailey.
The London mayoral election is one of thousands of races being contested on May 6 across Britain, from seats on local authority councils to mayoral positions in cities such as Greater Manchester and Bristol.
Khan, a former MP, told the Financial Times that despite his favourable poll numbers he was far from complacent. “As far as I’m concerned the polls are irrelevant because this is like no other election.”
With London recording more than 19,000 coronavirus-linked deaths, he argued that the pandemic has had a “catastrophic” impact on the economy and health of the capital, adding that shaping London’s post-Covid-19 recovery was his top priority.
If re-elected, Khan has pledged to focus on “protecting, preserving and helping to create jobs”, supporting small- and medium-sized enterprises and continuing to champion the city as a global investment and financial hub as it adjusts to life outside the EU.
While the pandemic has dominated headlines for the past year, Khan has had to confront an array of crises in an increasingly tumultuous political environment since becoming mayor in May 2016.
His term has coincided with the fall of two Conservative prime ministers, two general elections and the EU referendum, in which London voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European bloc even as much of the rest of England backed Brexit.
Among voters’ daily concerns, Khan has come under scrutiny for his handling of violent crime, with the latest Office for National Statistics figures indicating that London recorded the highest rate of knife crime in England in the year to September 2020, with 152 offences per 100,000 people.
“One area where he is a little bit more vulnerable is on crime and antisocial behaviour where there is a strong preference expressed by voters for tougher action,” said Patrick Diamond, associate professor in public policy at Queen Mary University of London.
The mayor has introduced initiatives including a cross-sector violence reduction unit, which aims to work with individuals at greatest risk of being drawn into crime. In his manifesto, Khan has pledged to “increase visible neighbourhood policing”.
Khan has also had to contend with the parlous finances of Transport for London, the public transport authority that he chairs. TFL is largely reliant on passenger fares and was bailed out by the government in November after its income plummeted.
Housing inequality has also gained political traction, particularly following the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, which resulted in the deaths of 72 residents and sparked fierce debate over building regulation, social housing and home affordability.
In his manifesto, Khan has promised to build 10,000 new council homes. However, Christine Whitehead, professor of housing economics at the London School of Economics, warned there was “no quick-fix solution” to the capital’s housing crisis.
“You cannot cure the problems of affordability by building new homes in the short run, they are a tiny proportion of the total,” she said.
Despite the capital’s challenges, political analysts argued that Khan’s incumbency and brand are advantages.
Anthony Wells, director of political research at YouGov, noted that the London mayoral race had been dominated by “charismatic big personalities” and well-known figures since the first election in 2000, referring to former mayors Ken Livingstone of Labour and Boris Johnson, now prime minister.
“Being mayor is also a job where you build up incumbency vote, if you are there and you haven’t been seen as a total disaster and people think you have done a fairly good job, they vote for you again,” he added.
Since his election as the city’s first Muslim mayor, Khan has become a high-profile figure both in the UK and abroad, fuelled in part by Twitter attacks by former US president Donald Trump.
Khan told the FT that he was “proud” to stand up for “London’s values” of open-mindedness and equality “whether against Trump, against Brexit or against Boris Johnson”.
Bailey acknowledged that going up against such a well-known figure and campaigning in the midst of the pandemic had been “tough”. However, he argued that now was the right time for a “fresh start” in the capital.
The Tory candidate believes that his proposed solutions to reduce crime, from the hiring of 8,000 additional police officers to the reopening 38 police stations, will resonate with Londoners concerned about violence.
Labour has held the majority of the capital’s parliamentary seats since 1997 but Bailey hopes that voters will focus less on party ideology and more on his specific ideas. His other proposals range from a £9m high street recovery fund to the creation of a “hospitality tsar” to support struggling restaurants and bars, and a plan to build 100,000 homes for £100,000 each.
“The choice is clear, I’m saying to Londoners this isn’t about parties, this isn’t about left or right, this is about you,” Bailey told the FT.
Political experts such as Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university, argued that the Tories will struggle to overturn Labour’s supremacy in the capital. “The Conservative party is weak among young voters, ethnic minority voters and Remain voters, and graduates, all of whom are make up a large proportion of the London population,” he said.
“London has become a one-party city — that has been clear over the past decade.”