Will the London Mayor be decided by personality or party?

What happens when neither main candidate is extremely famous already?

Unless something dramatic occurs to produce some sort of party leadership contest in the meantime, the next big political betting event in the UK is next May’s London Mayoral Election. In the absence of a significant third candidate, the betting is naturally dominated by Labour’s Sadiq Khan and the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith. The Betfair market currently rates their chances at 54% and 42% respectively.

The evidence from all four previous races suggests that this is fundamentally a personality contest, rather than about party affiliation, more so than any other UK election.

In the inaugural contest, Ken Livingstone failed to win the Labour nomination and ran instead as an independent. The result, at a time when Tony Blair’s Labour were riding high nationally, was a landslide win for the independent on 58%, with the official Labour candidate earning a miserable 13%.

Next time around in 2004, Blair had learnt his lesson and welcomed Ken back into the fold. The shine had come off Livingstone a little by then, but he still won with 55%.

By 2008, the Conservatives had learnt how to play this contest. Few in Westminster could envisage maverick, gaffe-prone Boris Johnson advancing through his Parliamentary party, but David Cameron pulled off a masterstroke in encouraging him to run for Mayor.

Easily the most popular politician in the country, with a rare ability to attract voters from beyond the usual Tory pool, Boris went on to retire Ken with two victories, by 53/47 and 52/48 margins.

Another way of looking at these results is that only twice, in 2004 and 2008, did the party that fared best in the Greater London Assembly elections on the same night produce the Mayor.

So it seems that these city mayor races are fundamentally about personality. Is it a coincidence that New York – the city Londoners most often compare their city to – frequently elected Republican Mayors like Bloomberg and Giuliani, despite being a Democrat state?

However before drawing too close a parallel and dismissing the party angle altogether, consider that this is nothing like those four previous races. Ken and Boris were unique figures.

Ken was effectively London’s exiled leader after Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council he led. He was a big national figure, an entertaining media regular, happy to go off-message. A hero to the Left, thus enabling him to siphon off most of the Labour vote.

Again the Boris experience cannot offer any useful lessons. He was more famous for his hair or making people laugh on Have I Got News For You than any policy positions. Like Ken before him, Boris has used this London role to distance himself from unpopular Conservative policies nationally.

While both Khan and Goldsmith are likeable, articulate characters, they occupy a different universe when it comes to name recognition. That will change as the campaign develops, but in what will be a low turnout election, both will struggle to attract votes from the ‘other side’.

If as seems plausible, this boils down to a traditional Lab/Con fight, the market is right to favour Khan. London was one of the few places where Labour did well in an otherwise catastrophic General Election. They are increasingly an inner-city party and Goldsmith has a mountain to climb overcoming that dynamic.

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