13 June 2023

To beat Sadiq Khan, the Tories must become ‘Bimbys’


For London Conservatives, it is to be a long, hot summer of hustings. Three names have been chosen for the shortlist to be the party’s candidate for Mayor of London. Dan Korski, a technology entrepreneur, Susan Hall, a Harrow councillor and member of the London Assembly, and Mozammel Hossain, a barrister.

I’m the one who can defeat Sadiq Khan,” each will claim in the coming weeks. There will be alliterative flourishes. Memories will be searched for childhood anecdotes to illustrate a ‘back story’. But can any of them really win?

None of them are famous, but that is not insurmountable. Being chosen as the candidate will give them a chance to establish a profile – especially if they manage to raise enough money for an advertising blitz before the restrictions on campaign spending kick in. One applicant who did have a bit of a profile was the Minister for London, Paul Scully, who didn’t even make the shortlist. But though many party members will be disappointed that the MP for Sutton and Cheam didn’t even make the ballot, it’s also true that mayoral contests tend to favour politicians who are seen as independent of their party.

Tories clutching at electoral straws may note that a change of electoral system could be of some modest help. Next year’s contest will be under first-past-the-post, as opposed to the supplementary vote system used in 2021. If nothing else, that means Greens and Lib Dems can’t give their second preference votes to Sadiq Khan, though beating him outright will clearly be a huge challenge for whoever ends up the Tory candidate.

Turnout is potentially a more significant issue. As with other local elections, most of the electorate sit out London mayoral elections, and last time only 42.2% of eligible voters went to the polls. One problem for the Tories is that their support tends to be concentrated in outer boroughs where voters, though technically part of Greater London, don’t really feel they are ‘Londoners’. Voters in Romford would probably tell you they live in Essex, or in Sidcup they might still say they are in Kent.

One thing that might get a reaction from those suburbanites is the expansion of Khan’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) scheme. The £12.50 a day charge for non-compliant vehicles is seen, not without reason, as a declaration of war on the white van men who keep the capital running. That could well make a difference in this election, provided the Conservative candidate handles the issue intelligently – highlighting the unfairness of the charge while also proposing positive alternatives to reduce air pollution. Indeed, it’s telling that some Labour councillors and London Labour MPs have themselves disowned Khan’s policy.

That’s just one of Khan’s many, many failures in office that a good candidate ought to be able to capitalise on. On Khan’s watch, the Metropolitan Police has been placed in special measures. The Mayor’s decision to cut the rate of stop and search led to an increase in violent crime – especially involving gangs and knives. Transport for London has been mismanaged, the Council Tax precept hiked, while he’s fallen woefully short of building the homes the capital so urgently needs. 

Khan’s response is always to blame central government (which has actually been pretty indulgent towards him financially). But why has London done less well than other parts of the country with the same spending challenges? And if Khan really is so powerless, why is he suggesting people vote him in for a third time? And though the Tories are certainly lagging in the national polls, in London it’s Labour who are the wearisome incumbents. I suspect there are relatively few ‘Khan-heads’ among the London electorate, itching to vote for him once more.

Let’s not beat about the bush though: the odds are still firmly against any Conservative challenger. Whatever Khan’s manifest failings and lack of popularity, his party has long performed better in the capital than nationally, and it’s doing pretty well nationally at the moment.

There’s no great mystery as to why the capital is getting more and more Labour-friendly. Nationally about two-thirds of us are owner-occupiers. In London, it is just over half. It is getting harder and harder. Read the Subnational estimates of dwellings by tenure, from the Office of National Statistics, and weep. 

Those who want to to get married, have children and become homeowners are being driven out of London if they are to have much chance of fulfilling such an ambition. Those are not uniquely Conservative ambitions, of course. But we know that owner-occupiers are more likely to be Conservative voters than those who are not.

That means whoever is chosen as the Conservative candidate ought to be a champion of home ownership and, yes, development. That needn’t mean making London an uglier city. As regular CapX readers will know, building beautiful, vernacular homes is both possible and crucial to securing local support. Perhaps it’s time to forget the war between Nimbys and Yimbys and become a Bimby – beauty in my backyard.

So it was reassuring to see Susan Hall, who is currently seen as the favourite for the Tory candidacy, writing in the Sunday Telegraph:

‘If I am the mayoral candidate, I will win in London with a serious plan to build homes. The best model for this is Create Streets, a brilliant project set up by Nicholas Boys Smith to promote the creation of beautiful, green, community-oriented places.’

That is the right approach. But to make a real difference it would need to be bold. It would involve allowing homes to be built on the scuzzier bits of ‘green belt’ within Greater London. It would mean selling off great tracts of surplus public sector land – from Transport for London and other agencies – for development. It would mean rebuilding council estates so that high density replaces high rise. 

A candidate who is serious about such a mission would have to make it their main priority. To be credible it would need to combine nerdy thoroughness to show how it could be achieved with an impassioned exposition of the moral imperative to build. London is crying out for an unapologetically pro-housing voice, and if the Conservatives can’t offer that candidate, who will? 

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.