Tomorrow’s local elections are a welcome return to some sort of normality after they were put on pause by the pandemic. According to the polls this isn’t the only familiar theme. In London, the numbers suggest Sadiq Khan will win the mayoralty by a healthy margin.
But with so much attention on former Labour heartlands in the north, is this also more evidence of an electoral and strategic retreat from the capital by the Conservative Party?
Khan remains in pole position
Many experts got out of the predictions game in 2016. However, London has been a consistent Labour stronghold which puts Sadiq Khan in a commanding position. Polls have given the Mayor of London a lead in the region of 20 points over Conservative Party candidate Shaun Bailey. These margins are likely to have tightened by Thursday, but he also benefits from a simple law of mayoral elections. People vote for personalities and there is none bigger in the race for City Hall.
The government has attacked the Mayor of London on a number of fronts, most notably Transport for London’s finances, Crossrail delays and violent crime. Despite this, Sadiq Khan has remained popular. In contrast, Bailey’s campaign has faced a number of challenges during the stop-start election cycle. Indeed, Boris Johnson is the only Conservative to win the mayoralty and there are few politicians with his profile. But does the race also reflect changing political alignments in England?
Will the ‘red wall’ stay blue?
Johnson won a House of Commons majority in 2019 by creating a new coalition of voters. The Conservatives fused their traditional core vote with an appeal to communities which felt left behind by politics and economics. The result was most profound in the ‘red wall’ where the traditional Labour vote disintegrated. These former manufacturing areas, often outside cities and far from London are now political priorities. Take the March Budget as an example. Rishi Sunak announced new town deals across the country, freeports, and a campus for the Treasury in Darlington.
So it is arguable that the most interesting races this year are outside London. Mid-term elections are hunting grounds for opposition parties, but the Conservatives have held a relatively healthy poll lead riding on the vaccine rollout and expectations of economic recovery. Some polls released over the weekend suggest Labour gained ground but it is worth remembering that governments are expected to lose seats at this point in the cycle. Holding their position would be a significant victory.
Has the government forgotten London? No. It needs the capital to be successful while the UK charts its course post-Brexit and after covid. However, recent elections demonstrate the Conservatives’ strategy has had less appeal to metropolitan central-London voters. Power in Westminster has been won elsewhere. It is outside the capital where the story will be written this week.
For Labour, losing City Hall would be extraordinary, but unlikely. But across England, commentators are most interested in these former ‘red wall’ areas, the Hartlepool by-election, mayoral races in the West Midlands and Tees Valley. And the Conservatives may be (quietly) optimistic.
A good result for the government will see it keen to press home the advantage by re-focusing on commitments made to new Conservative voters in 2019. The general election manifesto is an important start point and next week’s Queen’s Speech would be framed as a down payment on those pledges to the electorate. Subsequently, we can also expect set piece investments, spending decisions and policy to be seen through the lens of the voters which brought Boris Johnson to power. And it is here where we will see if the red wall will turn blue on a more permanent basis. As the recovery from covid builds momentum, pressure will increase on the government to delivered on those commitments to increase opportunity and prosperity.