London’s political pendulum

8 Mins read

The next Mayor of London will be the Eton educated son of a billionaire who is married to a Rothschild or the Muslim son of an immigrant bus driver who grew up on a council estate in South London.

Nationally, Labour has dominated London in terms of both vote share and elected MP’s since 1997. Tony Blair’s landslide victory that year lead to Labour gaining 57 of 74 seats in the capital, with the tally currently standing at a still impressive 45.

With this in mind, why are many harbouring doubts that the Labour candidate stands only half a chance, despite six years of Conservative government. Why, in one of the most cosmopolitan, multicultural and liberal cities in the country, are the Tories yet again favourites to win?

Many think back to 2008: Ken Livingstone has spent a long eight years at City Hall, with an additional 11 years of a now deeply unpopular Labour administration.

Gordon Brown is in the middle of the fallout over his scrapping of the 10p tax rate, with even Livingstone condemning as “unjust” a proposed policy that seemed to disproportionally affect working families.

Tough circumstances for anyone to fight an election then, let alone a man who could never count on the support of his own party, let alone the media.


The result reflects the torn allegiances of a weary London, with just 140,000 votes separating Ken and Boris out of the two million they received after all first and transfer votes were tallied.


It is interesting in itself that the turnout flew up to 45.3 per cent from 36.9 per cent in 2004 for reasons we will soon see, although firstly we will break these figures down locally to ascertain the real cause behind Johnson’s victory for the Tories. Consider Bexley and Bromley, a London Assembly constituency in a suburban south-eastern corner of London. Overwhelmingly white, middle class places like this bear a stronger affinity for the Tory strongholds of the Home Counties that surround them than Livingstone’s London. This detachment and alienation has traditionally lead to voting apathy in the Mayoral elections, despite the fact that Outer London’s population of 4,942,040 (as of 2011), dwarfs inner London’s 3,231,901. It was places like these that Johnson mobilized using his election chief Lynton Crosby’s ‘doughnut strategy’, mobilising the power of the neglected Conservative outer ring of London to counteract the stringently Labour inner ring. The plan worked wonders, with Bexley and Bromley not only having the highest turnout at 49.9%, but also the highest vote margin for Boris, at over 81,000. Battle Barring anomalies such as the solidly working class Barking & Dagenham and Waltham Forest, the scale of this success across the outer ring effectively left the battle as one for Inner London. Whilst Livingstone displayed a traditionally strong showing in dependable inner city constituencies such as Lambeth & Southwark, his numbers were eaten into by other left wing parties, to the point where the Lib Dems came second to Labour there, bucking the traditional Labour/Tory dogfight in most other areas. This only tells us so much though, so we move on to demographics. The overall population increase across Greater London was 14 per cent from 2001 to 2011, with the corresponding increase in non-white British residents at 55 per cent. In the 2011 census, London became more than 50 per cent non-white British, although this does rise to over 60% including other whites such as American, French and Polish. On the face of current demographic trends then, this must surely mean Khan is streets ahead? Of course, this is a gross oversimplification. Numbers Whilst Labour could traditionally count on the BME vote across the board, perhaps under the assumption that BME voters were a ‘block’ that supported them, increasing numbers of minority voters are voting Tory. In fact, ethnic minority support for the Tories more than doubled from 16 per cent in 2010 to 33 per cent in 2015, with the Tories topping a million BME votes for the first time, only 600,000 behind Labour. Much of this growth comes from Hindus and Sikhs, primarily made up of Indians – they are the most socioeconomically affluent BME group in the UK, who tend to promote an emphasis on education and hard work, with many owning family run small businesses. Culturally, they espouse family values and place emphasis on religious tradition, all traditionally conservative traits. Many Indians who have settled here for generations build their wealth and, like the White British of yesteryear, move to the suburbs. Figures in the 2011 census attest to this, with 109,000 Indians living in Inner London, but an astonishing 432,000 living in Outer London, by far the largest BME group of this example. Demographic As Hindus and Sikhs who have been here for generations, it is also possible that they are uncomfortable with the newer waves of Muslim and Eastern European immigration, in the same way many White British are. Whilst the White British leave the capital itself in droves, Indians move into the outer ring. So we see the idea of demographic voting habits being rendered null and void. This is due to social and cultural constructs within the subsets of these demographics.

It is a bittersweet irony that whilst affluent BME voters now feeling comfortable voting Tory can be interpreted as a vindication of the post-racial society, the prevalent issue of multiculturalism remains categorised by distrust and volatility.

Whilst this all must be taken into consideration, there are a myriad of other relevant factors affecting Sadiq Khan that are equally as complex.

The narrative of the first British Asian and Muslim to attend cabinet also being the first BME Mayor of London is an undeniably powerful one. However, there are many people who don’t feel that way.


One YouGov survey shows that 31 per cent of Londoners would be uncomfortable with a Muslim mayor. The naïve assumption that these people are primarily either White Christians or Indian Hindus again neglects the underlying factors.

Whilst traditional Catholic and Church of England churches in London are haemorrhaging members, black majority churches are experiencing exponential growth.

There are 720,000 people in London are going to church on Sunday, 100,000 more than 10 years ago, with 48 per cent of churchgoers in Inner London being black.

This is happening in areas with large Black African/Black Caribbean populations, traditionally solidly Labour.

Whilst traditional churches close, two new churches open per week, two thirds of which are Pentecostal black majority churches. Pentecostal churches are renowned for their strict, evangelical slant, including viewing homosexuality as a sin.

As Khan is a Muslim, some struggle to see how he will mobilize the black vote as Labour has done before after considering this, particularly as he is a liberal Muslim who voted for the Same Sex Marriage Bill in 2013.


One could even cynically assume that he will struggle to mobilise fellow Muslims, due to many holding strictly conservative views. They may view him at worst as a traitor, or at the least be apathetic.

Indeed, Khan has been forthright about receiving death threats after he voted for the Bill.

64 per cent of Muslims backed Miliband in 2015. London’s large Muslims blocks consist of more recently settled, poorer immigrants such as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis & Arabs.

Whilst these groups tend to Labour, and will solidly vote Khan, turnout is traditionally poor, with changes in voter registration also disproportionately affecting groups such as these, thus benefitting the Tories hugely.

Muslim percentages like those in the last general election are also, to put it bluntly, simply not large enough to inspire sufficient confidence.


Finally, following the Coalition government we have seen a collapse in the Lib Dem vote share, especially in areas with a large ethnic minority population such as Southwark & Bermondsey, traditionally Labour.

This means that the gulf between Labour and Tory will be wider than thought, especially if the Lib Dems are able to build a presence by May.

Whilst the Tories do have the same type of problem with UKIP, they represent a poor threat in comparison within London, being as they are the party of the anti-cosmopolitan.

We have established the effect of the voters themselves, and the various societal factors that may influence their decision. When it comes to influencing voters, one cannot also ignore the influence of the media on the election.

Ken Livingstone lambasted “media bias’ during his 2012 concession speech. He raises a salient point, as the friendship between Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the London Evening Standard, and Boris Johnson, has been well documented.

It is clear to see that the Standard, London’s biggest daily, will be Goldsmith’s cheerleader, and having this power and influence behind him will make life very difficult for Khan.


Of course it can be argued that the extent of media bias on the public can be overstated.

It remains to be seen whether the impact of ‘Corbynmania’ washes over Khan, and the young and students turn out in great numbers to further legitimise Corbyn’s stewardship of the Labour party in what will be their first major electoral test since his crowning.

However, if Goldsmith is smart, he will tap into this growing anti-political sentiment by burnishing his pro-democracy credentials.

Goldsmith is an advocate for localised democratic planning systems, powers of recall for MP’s constituents, and people’s referendums for local issues.

He even put the question of whether to run for Mayor to his constituents in a referendum, billing himself the £60,000 cost.

Indeed, in a situation vaguely reminiscent of Donald Trump in America, Goldsmiths considerable personal wealth may allow him to render the angle that he is unaccountable to lobbyist influence.

Whilst this may not play as well over here, recent events have shown it has the potential to become perversely popular.


Regardless, repudiating any allegations of being an out of touch Tory through the promotion of his history of direct democracy seems a given, thus denying Khan the people power angle he so desperately needs to utilise.

It definitely holds to reason that the Mayoral election is more of a personality contest as it is so focused on one person. This contest continues the clash of personalities narrative that has characterized previous Mayoral elections.

Goldsmith is handsome, media-friendly, polished, charming and witty, but with fire in his belly when needed.

He is the type of socially liberal Tory who is young and urbane enough to seem comfortable with the diversity of London, with strong green credentials to siphon off not only Green Party votes, but the environmentally conscious of other parties.

This will also play well with Londoners as a whole, who appreciate the need for action in such an overcrowded, over polluted city.

Despite this, neither candidate possesses the celebrity crossover appeal that Ken or Boris had so policy may end up becoming more important, especially with the state of housing in London.


This may be why Goldsmith has admitted early on in the campaign that there is a housing crisis in every borough to deflect the first and biggest point of contention early on.

It is up to Khan to push further on this in the hope that it damages Goldsmith, although it will be difficult to pin Boris’ failings on him, considering the differences between the pair.

So is there hope for Labour? Whilst it remains to be seen whether Osborne’s tax credit cuts may hamper the Tories as the 10p tax row did Labour, the similarities are striking.

Likewise, weariness with six years of Tory government will come into play to an extent. Khan has received some ringing endorsements, including a passionate blog endorsement from Keir Starmer, although there does seem to be a distinct lack of crossover endorsements that candidates such as Tessa Jowell would have hoovered up.

It is clearly an uphill struggle.

The implications for both parties as well as the city itself are truly stark. The idea of London being resolutely Labour will be shattered if a second Tory becomes Mayor.

Likewise, the leadership of Corbyn and the future of Labour as an ideological left wing party may be given its wings, or irreparably damaged before it takes flight. Whatever happens, there will be a political earthquake.



Featured image by Steve Eason via Flickr CC

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