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Posted: 01.05.24

Race for City Hall: It’s all over bar the voting (and the counting)

At time of publication, exhausted party activists and candidates are drawing on their reserves of adrenaline in final attempts to get out the vote. And with only hours left now until the polls close, ballot boxes are emptied and the votes are counted (with a result due some time Saturday), it’s an opportune moment to reflect back on the campaign.

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LCA have run a series of blogs by members of the team across a broad range of issues which affects our clients. Who wins the race to City Hall really does matter – and not only to our clients, but to Londoners across the city. The Mayor is in charge of a considerable budget, and responsibilities over transport, planning, policing, affordable housing reflecting every day issues that impact on people’s lives.

It's fair to say that the campaign has hardly caught the imagination of Londoners. It hasn’t been characterised by high energy, media-grabbing moments. It’s been fairly gaffe free. In the pantheons of previous mayoral contests, it’s hardly up there with Ken Livingstone’s first victory back in 2000 (albeit a contest with a low turnout), the Ken versus Boris Johnson tussles, or the bitter campaign fought against Sadiq Khan in 2016 by Zac Goldsmith.

So why has it been such a low key campaign? I think there are a few reasons.

First, with every single poll predicting a handsome Khan victory, many Londoners and commentators have, as a result, ‘banked’ a Labour win. Attention is instead elsewhere, on contests beyond the M25, most notably the West Midlands where the Tory incumbent faces a strong Labour challenge. Even the bookies have all but called it –  Khan at 1/100 with Paddy Power with Susan Hall back at 20/1. A lower turnout – heading below 40% – on Thursday would be a key indicator of how Londoners feel there is little jeopardy in the outcome and might contribute to the most surprising of results.

Second, it has been a safety first contest for the two front runners, albeit for slightly different reasons. For Khan, ahead in the polls, why take unnecessary risks? It’d explain the limited number of appearances at hustings. For Hall, her own safety first approach is more likely driven by the fear of tripping up during interviews, or being called out for historic social media tweets. While her name recognition is relatively low among Londoners, that might not necessarily damage her campaign given her party’s own position in national polls.

Third, the 2024 mayoral contest is pretty unusual in that the imminent prospect of a General Election at which there’s a good chance of a change of government overshadows everything. Are political parties more focused on the main event later in the year, having built their campaign infrastructure accordingly? And are they sensitive to exhausting activists and voters ahead of a likely autumn General Election?

Four, the big issues that matter most to Londoners aren’t necessarily in the gift of mayors to solve. Polls and surveys show that cost of living, the housing crisis, crime, climate change are all big priorities for voters yet City Hall has only part – or no - control over the major policy levers that could change these. Many voters are savvy – they know that the fundamental solutions are mostly in the gift of Westminster, not the Mayor. Could this mean that other factors are important when it comes to voting in the mayoral contest, like the values of the candidates and who would be the best figurehead for the city?

So if the pollsters and bookies are right, Sadiq Khan will be the first Mayor to win three terms. If the polls are wrong, there’ll need to be the most serious post mortem of what went wrong. Every single poll since November has recorded double-digit leads for Khan, with him ahead in both inner and outer London. It would be hard for pollsters to explain away a surprising Hall win as within the margin of error territory. That being said, we know from 2021 that the polls over-estimated Khan’s lead over Shaun Bailey – the end result was much closer than most people expected.

And right up to polling day, Khan’s camp have hammered home their concerns that the change to the voting system, the need to show voter ID at polling stations and general political apathy could see Hall take City Hall. It is hard to mobilise your voter base after eight years in charge – reflected in some of Khan’s negative satisfaction ratings seen in recent polls. That being said, a leading academic recently said to me that many politicians would give anything to have Khan’s approval ratings after eight years in office – they’ve held up pretty well.

Undeterred Susan Hall has campaigned hard, out and about across the city, pushing her messages around crime, ULEZ and that she (unlike the current Mayor) will listen to Londoners. Her camp remain quietly confident, with deficits in the polls dismissed as not reflecting the reality on the doorstep. With her strong focus on outer London, her route to victory is in the resurgence of the blue donut, with a corresponding low turnout among Labour voters in inner London.

Unlike Khan, who has received public backing from his party leader, Rishi Sunak has proven somewhat reluctant to be associated with Hall’s campaign. Perhaps that is actually Hall’s choice – after all, her manifesto barely mentions the word Conservative at all. When your party is as unpopular as the Conservatives, it is an understandable strategy to distance yourself – a tactic Andy Street and other Tory mayoral candidates are adopting elsewhere across the country.  

It has proven hard for the smaller parties to make inroads in the mayoral campaign, which is partly a product of the shift to a first past the post voting system. Khan in particular has drummed home the message that he needs the support of Green and Lib Dem voters to defeat Hall. In turn, Hall has done a pretty good job of squeezing down Reform UK, running a very Reform-y campaign. But with the London Assembly still part-elected via a proportionate system, the smaller parties still need to fight for every vote to keep up their representation. Given the Tory difficulties in recent elections in south-west London, Thursday might just see the Lib Dems win their first constituency assembly member and the Greens score their best result to date.

In one of the recent polls, Count Binface was at 3% of the vote – a remarkable result for an independent candidate running to inject some levity into the campaign. Might he keep his deposit? If so, push everything else to one side – as that could well be the result of the night!