The London Mayoral Election: Stand Alone Campaign or Practical Opinion Polling?

As we rapidly approach May 3rd, polling day for local elections up and down the country, the closely anticipated and much scrutinized London Mayoral Election begins to dominate more and more of the nation’s media coverage. Given its presence as the central focus of campaigning for all of the major parties, and also some of the minor ones, during this round of voting, the press has clamored to attach as much meaning and substance to it as possible, apparently bestowing upon it the status of unofficial comment on the success of the coalition government’s first term up to this point. But in such circumstances it is important to ask, how significant is this election with regards to public opinion on the government’s performance?

It is hard to deny that the post-budget coalition is in a veritable state of chaos, which has certainly not been remedied by their calamitous efforts in the face of proposed petrol strikes, and recent revelations concerning Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s allegedly improper conduct during News Corps’ failed bid for the takeover of BskyB. But will the Mayoral Election prove representative of public opinion towards the government, or is it simply an independent campaign based primarily on personal grievances towards Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson, with little or no bearing on party political opinion?

Ken and Boris face off on May 3rd

Firstly, it is important to consider whether or not those playing up the importance of the Mayoral Election are viewing it in the same manner as they would a by-election, and also to contemplate how significant the London Mayoral Election is in representing public opinion. Whether rightly or wrongly, by-elections are often looked upon as a survey on the public mood towards the incumbent government, and indeed the occasional by-election throws up a somewhat foreboding result. The Wirral South by-election in February 1997 ended the Conservative Party’s majority in parliament, thereby paving the way for Tony Blair’s landslide victory in May of that year. Similarly, the Glasgow East by-election in 2008 saw Labour lose its third safest Scottish seat to the Scottish National Party with a swing of 22.5%, pre-empting a resurgence of the SNP along with refreshed calls for Scottish independence.

The most recent litmus test on the government’s performance is, of course, the Bradford West by-election, notably won by the Respect Party candidate George Galloway. Basing his campaign on foreign policy and his own vehement anti-Iraq War record, Galloway managed to orchestrate a convincing and unprecedented win for his party, but it must be noted that the London Mayoral Election is being contested in completely different circumstances. While Galloway’s victory did appear to represent public apathy towards national politics, most have put his success down to the championing of single-issue politics within a neglected and largely mistreated constituency, one which the Labour Party had too long taken for granted. While there may be some parallels between the two elections, it does appear that the London Mayoral Election has been more topical in terms of discussing nationally relevant issues such as employment and the economy. Therefore, it could be suggested that the election represents an informal opinion poll far better than a one-off campaign such as Galloway’s does.

While there are several interesting candidacies for the position of Mayor of London, Jenny Jones of the Green Party and former civil servant Siobhan Benita running as an Independent being just two of them, it is nonetheless difficult to look past Ken and Boris when predicting the eventual victor. Ken Livingstone’s questionable tax affairs, as well as his subsequent hypocrisy in denouncing tax evaders, dominated the early stages of the campaign, but he has begun to close the gap by finally beginning to exert his influence over the traditional Labour stronghold of deprived inner-London. Nonetheless, the ‘Boris Factor’ that dominated the mayoral campaign in 2008 remains the most effective force in the race, with Boris Johnson employing his personable buffoonery to devastating effect, and in doing so warming the hearts of all those he encounters on his blitz of the campaign trail.

This fact is perhaps the one that relates most accordingly to the initial question, in that it gives an overview as to how significant the campaign is when considering its impact upon attitudes towards the major parties as a whole. Boris continues to vastly outperform his own party, perhaps owing largely to his ability to effectively distance himself from the scandals and concerns that currently engulf the Conservatives. Ken has picked up on this, and has driven home the point that ‘[t]he Conservative party want you to forget that there is a Conservative candidate in this election’, but, thus far, to no avail. His fervent contention with this point perhaps lies in the fact that, conversely, he is underperforming in comparison to his own party. A YouGov poll dated the 16th April puts the Labour Party on 43%, with the Conservatives trailing 11 points behind on 32%, a surge which the New Statesman puts down to a number of issues, including public preference towards Labour’s taxation proposals, and a seemingly more united Labour Party. Evidence such as this serves to reinforce the idea that the London Mayoral campaign is ultimately irrelevant when considering the wider scheme of British politics.

However, the coalescence of national and London politics has, in recent days, come in the form of a renewed housing debate. Apparent plans to re-house 500 families from the London borough of Newham in Stoke-on-Trent has led to allegations of ‘social cleansing’ from some media sources. As such, the London Mayoral candidates have jumped at the chance to put forward their own respective housing proposals, eager to move away from the previous ’hot’ issue, the rather dry debate over public transport pricing. With proposals mainly based around the expansion of social housing, and the imposition of social housing quotas upon new developments, it has granted the candidates the ability to attack each other on their respective social welfare records, All things considered, it is perhaps the one specific issue that has given the Mayoral Election at least a sheen of national significance.

Much like the predictable over-emphasis on by-election results, the Mayoral Election is unlikely to have an overtly profound effect on national politics. Indeed, at its core is a decidedly personal battle between two colourful yet divisive characters. However, it is issues such as housing, and the enticement of lower and middle-income voters that such debates bring with them, that will be central to this election, much in the same way that they will be key to the next general election in 2015.


Posted on April 30, 2012, in Coalition Government, Comment, Conservative Party, General, Labour Party, Looking Forward, Party Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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