WITH just over two weeks left in the London Mayoral race, Boris Johnson looks set for victory, with the latest YouGov poll showing him 6 per cent ahead of Ken Livingstone. That is the same margin by which he beat him in 2008. But, although three polls have now shown him maintaining this lead, Johnson should not be feeling the slightest bit comfortable.
The reason is simple – his winning edge comes courtesy of Labour voters. In 2008, with the Johnson-Livingstone lead exactly the same, the vote for the assembly also had the Conservatives ahead, by 1 per cent more. Now, Labour is in front by 10 per cent. That’s an 8 per cent swing from Conservatives to Labour, but the Livingstone vote hasn’t moved an inch. There’s a big lump of Labour voters who are sticking with the Tory.
We are seeing something that hasn’t been spotted in British politics for a very long time: a Conservative that people actually like. Johnson has genuine star quality: anyone who has seen him campaigning will have witnessed that people don’t just smile when he comes near, they reach out to touch him. Of course, partly it’s because he’s instantly recognisable. Well before he was mayor, the Guardian ran a photograph of him without even bothering to identify him in the caption – it was assumed everyone would know who it was. The funny thing was that the photo, which dominated the whole front page, showed only the back of his head. That’s recognition.
But it’s not just fame. Our polls show that he has charmed Londoners. Though we are a generally grudging lot when it comes to feeding the ego of our local politicians, we are unusually generous to Johnson: by a margin of nearly two-to-one, Londoners think he has done well over the past four years, and even though many see him as being “for the rich”, they still say he’s charismatic, and give him the benefit of the doubt.
True, not everyone is magnetised. While white voters split 61 per cent for Johnson, non-white voters split overwhelmingly, by 71 per cent, for Livingstone. That of course is no different than the national tendency, but in London one in three is non-white. Equally, this election seems to split along gender lines. With second preference votes included, and with figures adjusted for likelihood to vote, 59 per cent of women favour Johnson, while 53 per cent of men favour Livingstone.
For all his winning ways, Johnson can’t feel the slightest bit comfortable sitting on those Labour votes. In two weeks, they could still easily turn. Not long ago, Livingstone and Johnson were even. Then the tax issue did its damage to the Labour ex-Mayor. But this story, and its effect on votes, could start to fade. And Livingstone’s campaign will surely focus heavily on Labour, not on his own faltering image. Policy issues could start to dominate: Livingstone’s promise on lower public transport fares shows strongly in polls (though people don’t necessarily believe him – the same polls also show that people are evenly split on whether Livingstone would actually do it). The simple fact is, if Labour voters could be made to stick with Livingstone, everything would change. Labour voting Labour easily sinks Johnson.
Right now, there’s no sign of that. And if Johnson does pull it off, the Conservatives should be mighty grateful. After all, London has always been something of a bell-weather: the country tends to follow a London swing. David Cameron will feel much better at the next general election if the Conservatives are at least half-holding on to the capital.
That “Boris Buzz” could yet prove even more valuable. If he wins on 3 May, Johnson’s cheerful face will be plastered all over the Olympics. If for the next four years he can keep up his energetic and almost faultless performance (he did slip up waving his broom in the aftermath of last summer’s riots) he might find himself on an even bigger platform, back in national politics. After all, a man as front-stage, popular and yet genuinely Tory as Johnson will be a highly sought-after commodity for Conservatives in an era of plummeting faith in politicians of all stripes.
Stephan Shakespeare is the chief executive of YouGov.