Mayoral matters – the inside track

Thursday 19 April 2012

Boris is ahead in the contest to become the next London mayor, but it is the location rather than the size of the turnout in the coming election that will be the crucial determining factor.

That is according to Robert Gordon Clark, Executive Chairman of London Communications Agency and the man regarded as having one of the most insightful of inside tracks on the way it will all turn out.

‘I think Ken is likely to win if the outer London vote really drops’, said Gordon Clark at a special NLA breakfast briefing on the issue, ‘Keeping the turnout strong on inner London will be particularly important. But if his seven per cent cut [on tube fares] doesn’t get any traction or if Ken can’t get any more Labour voters voting for him... any good news in London over the next four weeks I think Boris will really champion.’

Boris Johnson is, added Gordon Clark, is a lot more on-message in this campaign – but a high turnout in outer London plus central west will be crucial for him.

The Evening Standard – then a paid-for newspaper - played an important point in the election last time. More subtly this time, in LCA’s view, ‘softer’ good news for Boris is getting higher profile coverage, while some of the bad news items, like his buses not running well are ‘buried’, and Ken’s bad news is getting ‘a pretty strong showing’. ‘One Labour minister said that 75% of the Standard’s coverage is pro-Boris and 25% is neutral’, said Gordon Clark.

On development and construction, Livingstone says he will be more interventionist than Boris was in his term, seeking to stamp his vision and stance on the mayoralty. Boris, meanwhile, will become more interested in built environment and planning issues, believes Gordon Clark, and Sir Eddie Lister has confirmed he will continue to advise him. ‘But there could be a new player advising Ken on the built environment’, he added. Neale Coleman, who has been acting for Boris on Olympics matters, may emerge as a Livingstone advisor.

Turning back the clock revealed some insights on the mayoral election process. For example, comparing figures for Ken Livingstone against Steve Norris in 2004 with Ken against Boris in 2008 showed that ‘Boris didn’t just do well in the areas you’d expect him to do well in’. He was, said Gordon Clark, effective in ‘levering votes across the whole of London.’ That was including in seats that could be considered quite hard work for an old Etonian, such as Lambeth and Southwark, where he nearly doubled the number of votes that Norris achieved four years earlier. And where Livingstone beat Norris in more of the so-called ‘super-constituencies’, it flipped around the other way in 2008.

This time round, Livingstone is putting a good deal of his resources into fighting the outer London areas, canvassing where Boris has been strong. Livingstone’s adviser, Simon Fletcher, was key to running the Labour campaign for the local elections in London in 2010.  ‘Ken Livingstone polled over a million votes in 2008, up from 800,000 in 2004, and yet people considered he had run a bad campaign.’ But Boris polled 1.2 million in a turnout of over 45 per cent, riding on a crest of a wave of popularity nationally of David Cameron, who had only recently taken over as leader. But the lead changed two or three times, depending on which polls you looked at, and which you believed were more accurate. YouGov was, in hindsight, seen to be one of the more accurate of these pollsters, running advertisements claiming that description afterwards. Now, the Conservatives are polling below Labour, and after the cash-for-access saga, the gap is double digits, although Labour lost an important seat, Bradford West, to George Galloway. Another factor is how popular Livingstone is to his own party – one in three Labour voters polled are saying they would struggle to vote for him. In comparison, only about 14 per cent of Conservatives are saying they are struggling to vote for Boris. The gap between Johnson and his party has widened – it will be interesting to see the results of four more polls the Evening Standard is planning to run before the election.

Websites are much more important this time around – Livingstone’s featuring a facility where you can type in your high street and it will show where he has visited. Boris’ website - ‘a bit flatter’ in Gordon Clark’s view – has little in the way of Conservative branding, whereas Labour’s is there on Livingstone’s, albeit in a small way. When it comes to Twitter, Boris’ tactic of importing the 250,000 contacts has acquired has been challenged as it was a mayoral not a Conservative Twitter feed, but it was an impressive number to have garnered over the four year term. ‘Twitter, and the power of Twitter, is becoming more relevant.’

On policy points, the Nine Point plan Boris Johnson has put out is interesting for what the points don’t say and for the way they avoid a ‘by when’, said Gordon Clark. Headline pledges from Livingstone include that he will abandon the estuary airport idea Boris is pushing. Livingstone believes his lasting legacy if re-elected will be Crossrail 2 and 3, but might he have gone too early on his pledge to cut tube fares by 7-10 per cent? An Ipsos MORI poll from three weeks ago suggested the most important policy area might be the economy, and jobs – with the two main challengers running neck and neck on that issue. ‘Isn’t it ironic that a Labour candidate is putting money in your pocket by cutting and a Conservative one is putting in infrastructure? I do find that an interesting dynamic in the current politics. It is not often that way around.’

Elsewhere, the Greens candidate Jenny Jones is keen to push road pricing as an issue for London, while Lib Dems’ Brian Paddick is pushing hard for one-hour bus tickets to add to his strengths in policing and fighting crime. 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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