Even in the best of electoral years, being a card carrying Conservative canvasser in ‘a Labour city’ can be a depressing experience. And with the polls currently painting a stark picture in London there is little to celebrate. Indeed, as 5th May draws imminently closer, the perceived wisdom is that London is lost.
Sadly, for those of us treading the streets, the mood on the doorstep would seem to reflect this opinion. It certainly doesn’t feel like twelve months ago.
Turning to the big fight first, 12 candidates may have declared for the Mayoralty but ultimately it’s a two horse race: Sadiq vs Zac. Goldsmith vs Khan. Call it whatever you like. The fact that the challenge sounds like a premier boxing match is about as enticing as the campaign is likely to get.
Cast your mind back to October’s Mayoral nominations and you’ll recall Goldsmith winning an overwhelming 70% of the vote against rivals Boff, Kamall and Greenhalgh. Perhaps not as impressive as it sounds, given both the individuals in question and the exceptionally low turnout for the primary; but the majority of Tory activists in London were happy. In Zac we had a big name (one which works well on its own, like Boris and Ken), an anti-politician who would appeal in London, an anti-Heathrow environmentalist, and someone who seemed genuine.
Now come back to the present, put the mudslinging of recent weeks and the nastiness of the campaign to one side, and ask when and where it actually went wrong.
Did the campaign unravel the moment Zac went for Brexit in Europe’s arguably most European city? Is he suffering from Boris’ legacy, the Cycle Superhighways, which have managed to make traffic even worse? Or is it that he’s simply viewed as an Old Etonian millionaire trust fund member of the establishment?
The two candidates could hardly be more different but this isn’t why the campaign has separated.
What’s gone well for Khan is that his message resonates. He has a compelling backstory and has used it to his advantage. He’s spoken about London positively and, on the whole, run a positive campaign that’s avoided demonstrating his rather unique brand of socialism. What’s gone badly for Zac is that his campaign has failed to get the support it needs, both from CCHQ and at a grassroots level. Admittedly the Richmond MP’s campaign has been lacklustre of his own making but it is worth noting that David Cameron has, only once, taken to the streets to support his Party’s candidate. How many more times did he turnout for Boris in 2008 and 2012? Many times more.
Turning to the Assembly elections, a seasoned canvasser will know that the common doorstep response to anything other than the Mayoral election is “what’s the GLA?”. It’s a good question but not one I have the energy to address here. The points to be made are that (1) Assembly elections are happening, (2) the majority of people are not really aware of this and don’t really care, and (3) that for those that do know there is a significant knowledge gap as to what the Assembly’s purpose really is. As such, the majority have little knowledge of who their representative is at City Hall and their vote is subsequently made on political preference rather than as an endorsement of an individual.
One of the few exceptions to this rule is, perhaps, Andrew Dismore in Barnet and Camden, who was previously the area’s MP and had existing profile. But for the remainder, many of whom have vast majorities (the average is 32,146), there will be little or no change. If any, the seats subject to change are the 11 London-wide list seats, those elected from a party list to make the total members from each party proportional to the amount of votes the parties receive. These are liable to change and with the anticipation that UKIP could gain one seat from the Liberal Democrats and Labour one from the Conservatives, the result will provide a clear impression as to how the various parties really are ranked in London.
So for those of us card carrying Conservatives the outlook ain’t great. But are there any silver linings to take away?
In the short term. In London. No. The Party may well do better across the rest of the UK but to lose London will be seen as nothing other than an abject failure.
In the long term. Yes. A good Labour win in London will strengthen the Corbyn brand at a time when he looks set to take a slamming across the country. A stronger Corbyn brand will make it harder for his more mainstream colleagues to oust him. And the longer it takes to oust him, the longer Corbyn remains Labour Leader, which can only be good for the Tories. Furthermore, at a time when the EU Referendum is all dominating and Boris an increasingly problematic thorn in the side of Downing Street’s operation, a Labour win will be banked and used to discredit his legacy when the time of a Conservative leadership election comes.
Clearly (here’s the caveat), it could all change over the next few days. Zac’s immigration orientated rhetoric could cut through, and Red Len’s comments about antisemitism will have been noted by the electorate.
But to return to the question of what went wrong. In one word: complacency. For Cameron, it doesn’t overly matter if London does turn red, he’s off soon anyway and he will be remembered for having won or lost larger prizes. If Zac wins then great, but one might question whether Cameron wanted London’s campaign to go wrong all along…