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Mayor of London Siobhan Benita? Don’t rule it out

September 20th, 2019

SV means the Lib Dems could pull off something extraordinary

In the absence of big names and big characters, London politics has dropped off the media radar a bit. After the controversial Ken Livingstone and the future PM Boris Johnson, Sadiq Khan has been – spats with Donald Trump aside – a lower-profile mayor.

Khan’s term ends, however, in less than eight months, when he’ll bid for re-election. Until recently, this was all-but assured. The Tory candidate, Shaun Bailey, looks lightweight and gaffe-prone while all other candidates seemed doomed to be also-rans. No candidate from the minor parties (which in London included the Lib Dems) has ever polled more than 15%, other than exceptional case of Livingstone in the initial election of 2000; in the last two elections, none outside of Con/Lan polled more than 6%. Add in the dominance of these two parties in the polls at the start of the year and everything looked set for something like a repeat of 2016. Not now.

For one thing, Sadiq Khan’s popularity ratings generate a ‘meh’ response from Londoners. In a July YouGov poll, he recorded 30% satisfied and 33% dissatisfied, for a net -3 rating. Overall, that’s not bad and certainly much better than many politicians rate (though London has been a strongly Labour city through the 2010s so they’re maybe not quite as good as they first appear). On the other hand, there are a lot of Don’t Knows in there, which allied to the negatives suggests there is opportunity for an opponent.

However, the revolution in party support this year opens everything up. Across the country as a whole, Labour may be down by close to half what it polled in January, with the Tories down by at least a quarter. In London, the main beneficiaries have been the Lib Dems, who finished first across the capital in the European elections and have polled first in Westminster VI there too in some polls (albeit in unweighted and small subsets, with consequently large margins of error).

Of course, it’s one thing to do this in an election no-one really campaigns in or in opinion polls; quite another to produce that result when the parties are running near full-throttle. Do the Lib Dems have the manpower and resources to match Labour? That’s still a very open question and without positive evidence to suggest so, we have to assume that the campaign factor still works strongly to Khan’s favour.

On the other hand, Siobhan Benita has three things going for her (besides the quality of the other candidates and her ability to hold her own on that score). Firstly, London is a very strongly Remain city and the Lib Dems are very strongly Remain. Secondly, Khan doesn’t have a great track record and is likely to be the subject of far more negative campaigning from all parties than she will, especially on crime.

And thirdly, the Supplementary Vote system. Benita probably doesn’t need to win the first round in order to win outright: she can probably expect more transfers than Khan. This is, admittedly, finger-in-the-air stuff from me but if she can beat Bailey in the first round, then transfers will either be coming from the right-of-centre or from left-of-centre voters who have chosen not to back Khan. In both cases, I’d guess that she should win the greater number if the first round is close (although there may be high levels of non-transferable votes). If she can reach the low-30s in the first round – a level the Lib Dems have polled at in London – she’d stand a good chance of winning.

Now, it has to be said that the polling doesn’t yet bear such a prediction out. We’ve only had one poll since the party ructions in the Spring, and that was in early May, which had Benita polling fourth on 10%, behind the Green candidate Sian Berry (16%), with Bailey still second on 23%. Clearly, there is some work to do in convincing the public – to which end the EP election results, bar charts and “can’t win here” allegations would no doubt feature.

There are two other critical factors to consider. Between now and next May, there’s a good chance that at least one and perhaps two things will happen: Brexit will finally occur, and a general election will take place. Both have the capacity to do a lot of damage to the major parties. It is possible that come May, Corbyn could be in a honeymoon period, having restored post-No Deal order with an agreement, so providing Khan with a nice clear national backdrop against which to sweep to re-election.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Labour could be in a right mess following either victory or defeat (likewise the Tories, though that’d matter less for these purposes). If YouGov’s methodology rather than Survation’s is correct then Electoral Calculus has the Lib Dems making eight gains across London, four from both the Tories and Labour on the most recent poll. For reference, YouGov got the Lab-LD gap at the recent EP elections right to within 0.2% (understating both by about 1%); Survation missed the mark by some 17%! Such a sweep of gains would surely greatly affect public perceptions as to which parties are serious contenders for the mayoral race.

Does all this make the Yellow Team favourites? Not at all. That honour still lies with the Reds and the power of incumbency, political inertia and the hard facts of such polling as we have. However, this is a race to keep an eye on, particularly on how intensely the Lib Dems are ramping up their campaign efforts on the ground in London. If they do, then the current odds for Benita, as long as 7/1, would be value.

David Herdson