by Atul Hatwal
Earlier this week YouGov released their latest London mayoral poll. While Boris Johnson’s 49%-41% lead on first preferences was widely reported, some of the most striking results were lost in the news vortex of the budget.
Chief among these is the scale of Ken Livingstone’s problem with Labour supporters: 31% say they will not vote for him in the mayoral election.
Just weeks before the election, almost 1 in 3 Labour supporters are refusing to back the party’s candidate for mayor.
In comparison, Boris Johnson’s core support is firmer. 86% of Conservative backers say they will vote for him with 14% either supporting other candidates or undecided.
The impact of this differential in party supporters’ commitment to their candidate is critical for the mayoral race: it translates into an 8% boost in Boris Johnson’s overall total.
And 8% is, coincidentally, the size of Johnson’s latest lead over Livingstone.
The bad news for Labour is that this problem has been building all year. The graph below shows how Ken Livingstone has progressively bled support from Labour backers while Johnson has consolidated his vote amongst Conservatives.
At the start of the year, Johnson’s Conservative support was more solid than Livingstone’s, but not by much. 15% of Tories were not going to vote for Johnson compared to 22% of Labour supporters who would not back Livingstone.
Although a 7% deficit in commitment amongst party supporters was not great for the Labour party, it is still a lot better than the 17% chasm that has opened up in the latest poll.
Now, as the campaign proper begins, the direction of travel is disastrous for Labour. If the trend since January continues, by polling day almost 40% of London’s Labour supporters will not vote for Ken Livingstone.
The primary task for Labour’s campaign is to halt the haemorrhaging of Labour support from the candidate. Otherwise, no matter what gains might be secured with Tory switchers or undecided voters, defeat will be assured because of Livingstone’s crumbling Labour flank.
But this is easier said than done, for two reasons: the nature of a campaign and Ken Livingstone’s history.
First, the target of Labour’s campaign is Boris Johnson. The current mayor is the focus for Labour’s activity in the media and on the doorstep. But for unhappy Labour supporters, most of this is irrelevant. Their problem is Ken Livingstone.
Unless Labour divert valuable campaign time and resources to addressing Ken Livingstone’s negatives, then the doubts which are driving away ever more Labour supporters will simply not be addressed.
But even if Labour could spare the time and effort, the second issue would make it almost impossible.
Ken Livingstone is probably the most well defined and established candidate running for office in Britain. He has been in front rank politics for over thirty years and the vast majority of Labour’s burgeoning group of Livingstone refuseniks will have been uneasy about the candidate for a while, if not definitively decided on opposing him.
To tackle Livingstone’s negatives, disillusioned Labour supporters would need to be convinced that a man who has prided himself on his constancy over the past decades has fundamentally changed.
As likely scenarios go, it’s something we can expect to see, right after George Osborne releases the full detail of his tax returns and personal finances.
So Labour will press on, running a reasonably effective campaign against Boris Johnson while the hole in the bucket remains unplugged and more and more Labour supporters leak away, deciding that they will give voting for the mayor a miss.
And at the end of it all, people will ask the question: how could Labour hold a 10%+ lead over the Tories in London on party preference over a period of years, but still lose the mayoral election?
Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut