Most major election campaigns have trademark moments or themes that leave an indelible image on the electorate and become a part of the public’s collective memory. The 2019 General Election will be remembered as the Brexit election and for Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” slogan.
In the 2016 London mayoral election there was Zac Goldsmith’s nasty and ill-conceived attempts to label Sadiq Khan as a radical Islamist sympathiser and in the 2010 General Election we had Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” comments.
What would be the defining moment or theme for the 2021 mayor of London election then? Do you know? I bet you don’t – I don’t even know and I’ve covered the thing for more than a year.
The race, postponed 12 months due to Covid, has been a lifeless affair that has provided no spark, intrigue, gaffes or memorable moments. The closest thing was that time Sadiq Khan hid in a coffee shop from a few crank hecklers at a media event in Bounds Green.
The lack of public interest in the campaign will likely be borne out in today’s turnout, with pundits expecting it to be among the lowest ever for a London mayor election. The record high turnout, as an aside, was 45 per cent when Boris Johnson won in 2008 as a liberal, internationalist Tory up against the old school Bennite Ken Livingstone.
The candidates and their parties are not entirely to blame for the lack of interest in the election. This year’s lockdown meant a ban on door-to-door campaigning, while both parties are also said to be relatively cash poor and unable to spend huge sums on digital advertising.
Meanwhile, the easing of restrictions in the past month has meant people have far more important and fulfilling things to do then ponder the results of an election they barely knew was taking place. However, public interest still would have been diabolically low even without the spectre of Covid.
Sadiq Khan has run a defensive campaign that has failed to outline a grand vision for a post-Covid London that we so desperately need. But can we really blame him for playing it safe when the result looks so certain?
Khan’s Tory rival, Shaun Bailey, has been so poor that he has trailed the mayor by more than 20 points in the polls for the past year. Despite having three years to make a name for himself, he has failed to have any real cut through with the electorate.
A YouGov poll last week found that just 33 per cent of Londoners had a good idea of who Bailey is and what he stands for. Those that do recognise the London Assembly member will likely know him for a long list of gaffes and crude comments that reveal a long standing streak of social conservatism – not exactly ideal when trying to court voters in the progressive enclave that is London.
The Conservative party has also done very little to support Bailey, pulling a large chunk of his campaign funding earlier this year and leaving him with just one communications officer. After winning just 21 of 72 London constituencies in the 2019 General Election, the Tories made economically “levelling up” the Midlands and the North as its top priority in government.
All of this has led many to conclude the Tories have abandoned London and will happily divert resources elsewhere to where it can win, leaving the capital as essentially a one-party town. Even the staunchest of Labourites should be worried about this turn of events.
Guaranteed victories for Labour candidates in City Hall, and in the lion’s share of other local elections, would likely lead to poorer performances from our elected officials. Democracy, much like football, only works if there are consequences for poor performances and if incumbents can be made to pay at the ballot box.
Even the most tribal of Labour supporters should want their elected officials to be held accountable and to not become complacent in office. An extreme example of how this can play out is in Liverpool.
The Conservatives have not controlled Liverpool City Council since 1971 and have just one MP out of 15 in Merseyside. It can be little surprise then that the Labour-run council, immune from any kind of real electoral challenge from the Tories, has been plagued with a series of corruption allegations.
Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson was arrested last year over claims, which he denies, of bribery and witness intimidation. He is being investigated over allegations that he took bribes in return for building contracts, with colourful figures like former Militant Tendency heavy Derek Hatton also involved.
This brand of cronyism and corruption is the corollary of a system where one party is left to its own devices and faces no genuine scrutiny come election time. However, this is not at all to suggest Khan or his team are in any way crooked or ever will be – they are all good people who genuinely love this city.
But what if we’re not so lucky in the future or if we simply get landed with a series of incompetent mayors that won’t be thrown out due to the tribal nature of London’s Labour affinity? Let’s hope the Conservatives change course and get their act together in time to make a contest of the London mayor election of 2024.