14 April 2016

The doughnut may yet do it for Zac Goldsmith


Received wisdom in Westminster is that Zac Goldsmith’s campaign to be elected as the next Conservative Mayor of London on May 5th is stalling badly. The polls show he is 8-10 points behind Sadiq Khan, Labour is bubbling with confidence (one old Labour hand told me it is a “slam dunk”) and the implied odds of the betting market are that Sadiq Khan is more than 80% likely to win.

The Spectator has pronounced Zac’s campaign as “as good as over” and as for the rest of the national media, they can hardly summon up any interest at all.

If they are right, and Sadiq Khan does win, then it will be a huge moment, a major victory for him personally and for the Labour party. Nobody will take any notice of the hundreds of council seats being contested up and down the country and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections will be overshadowed by the fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s stumbling Labour party has seized London, the capital city, the imperial crown.

But I am not so sure about the received wisdom. There are reasons to believe that Zac might yet pull it off. Here are six of them:

1. It is about turnout. You would have thought the electorate would be excited about the fate of Europe’s biggest city, with GDP of some £600bn. But not so. The highest ever turnout was 45% in 2008 and last time it was only 38%. In theory, there are nearly 6m voters in London, but given the general lack of interest this time, less than 3m will bother to make it to the polling booths. And who is more likely to vote? According to the data, they are typically, small ‘c’ conservative voters, aged over 35, who own their own home, live in the doughnut ring of the suburbs of outer London and who commute to work. As we saw in the general election, these are the very people pollsters find it difficult to survey. The polls could be exaggerating Sadiq Khan’s lead.

2. Zac may do better on second preferences than Boris. Those who do make it to the polling booth will have a second preference vote. So if no candidate gets more than 50%, the top two go through and second preferences are added to the total. Last time, in 2012, Boris Johnson got 44% of the first round votes, or 970,000; and Ken Livingstone got 40%, or 890,000. But Livingstone did much better with second preferences, where he gained an additional 102,000 votes, compared to Boris’s 83,000. The result was that Boris won by a miniscule total of 60,000 votes.

This time around, let us assume Sadiq Khan is ahead in the first round, the question will be where will all the Lib Dem, Green and UKIP votes go? There are some 400,000 of these, or about 15% of the active electorate. It is quite possible, that given his positions on the environment, social issues, taxation and the EU, Zac Goldsmith could do much better than Boris on second preferences.

3. The electoral register. In a little noticed development, the Government accelerated in December the introduction of individual voter registration in time for the EU referendum. The consequence is that 1.4m registrations have dropped of nationally, mostly belonging to those who move frequently, such as students. In some inner London boroughs, such as Southwark, tens of thousands have disappeared. Many of these are presumably Labour voters.

4. Commuters. Zac Goldsmith is essentially being positioned as a third term of Boris Johnson. Overall, Boris has been a good mayor, presiding over a cut in crime, reducing slightly the Mayor’s £250 average slice of council tax, and delivering CrossRail on time. Intuitively, one has to believe this is the right place for him to be. By contrast, Sadiq Khan is promising to freeze fares for four years, which will inevitably lead to big reductions in upgrades which commuters clambering onto packed trains in the morning know are urgently required.

5. Tory unity. The last couple of months have been dominated by national Conservative splits over Europe and incompetence on matters such as the Budget and the steel industry, but in the next three weeks that is likely to simmer down as the party concentrates on trying to keep London. Certainly, the activists, councillors, MPs and assembly members are united behind Zac Goldsmith and now pounding the streets on his behalf.

6. Sadiq Khan’s legal career is an issue. Like most people, I am personally put off by the racist rhetoric of the kind which Sadiq Khan believes has been thrown about. But there is no denying that Sadiq Khan used to make a living as a left-wing lawyer, representing those accused of terrorist-type offences, suing the police etc. The significance of this is not that he will invite 9/11 bombers into City Hall, but that he is an authentic London lefty of the Ken Livingstone variety. We all know what that means: losing control of the finances, strikes, minority politics, anti-wealth rhetoric, bashing the police and so on.

When it gets close to polling day, many people will think: “Hang on, Zac is right, council tax will go up and City hall will be full of loons again if Sadiq wins. Livingstone might even return as head of Transport for London. No thanks.”

Zac Goldsmith is right to raise these issues, but instead of relying on innuendo, he now needs to really put the boot in with direct, evocative allegations about Sadiq Khan’s political sympathies, to strike and not just to wound.

So Zac may yet overturn received wisdom. That said, if he is to do so he and his campaign need to step it up the pace dramatically and to finish well. Sadiq Khan has amazing energy. Zac Goldsmith needs to take a leaf out of his opponent’s book, to show more passion and less entitlement. Get cross about something. Roll up his sleeves. Take his tie off (his minders have made him look like one of Sadiq Khan’s clients dressed up by his lawyer for court).

He must also find a positive issue with which to inspire the electorate. That issue is obviously housing. Thanks to numerous unhelpful interventions from the Government, not least punitive rises in stamp duty imposed by the chancellor George Osborne, the London housing market is now almost totally dysfunctional.

This is a big subject in itself, but in summary the latest surveys show house prices and transactions are actually falling, even though first time buyers still cannot afford to get on the ladder. The new tiered rates of stamp duty are incentivising the construction of 1-2 bed residences instead of family homes and it has to be said that Boris has made some disastrous planning decisions. Hideous skyscrapers are popping up all over the place and a pointless deluge of 35,000 luxury apartments, suitable only for foreign investors, is flooding the market.

Zac should defy ministers in Westminster, demand cuts in stamp duty for London and promise “Fewer Skyscrapers” and to build “proper terraced houses” instead. That is certainly what we all want in the ‘burbs, I can tell you. We want our children to live in a neighbourly city for aspiring Londoners, not for faceless Chinese and Russian investors flipping flats they have bought off a plan.

George Trefgarne is founder of Boscobel & Partners, a communications firm.