The early firing of the starting pistol in the race to become Labour’s candidate for London Mayor is welcome. It will provide an opportunity, sooner rather than later, to galvanise progressive opposition to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government intent on huge public sector cuts. And, as the mayoral contest will be over before Labour’s national leadership race, London party members will be able to choose a candidate without allegations of political interference from above.
Whoever becomes Labour’s mayoral candidate will have the party’s strong general election showing in London on which to build. The combination of high voter turnout and the hard work of local activists and candidates means Labour still has the highest number of MPs in Greater London. Labour also regained control of local government in London, winning back 10 councils and returning three borough mayors.
Labour’s share of the vote in the capital was 2 per cent higher than the Tories’ and the swing away from Labour just 2.5 per cent. London played a big part in denying David Cameron’s Conservatives an overall majority. Had voter turnout been as high in the 2008 mayoral election, some polling suggests that Ken Livingstone would probably have won. Whether people turn out in high numbers will be crucial for Labour’s success in the future.
The first big electoral test for the coalition is likely to be the 2012 London mayoral contest. Boris Johnson’s Tory administration will have presided over huge budget cuts, the real possibility of more public transport fare rises and worsening frontline services. All this will place a big strain on London’s civic society. While voters may be motivated to turn out by anger at the damage the new Government will inevitably inflict, the downside for Labour will be that councils the party now controls will be expected to implement much of the cuts programme.
The real test for Labour looking to regain the mayoralty is the challenge posed by Boris Johnson. We have come to accept that his charm, wit and bluster reach parts of the electorate most politicians can only dream of.
What he cannot hide, though, is that he has been happy to do very little as Mayor. He has pushed ahead with projects started by his predecessor, such as the cycle hire scheme and support for Crossrail. But he has done very little new that could be seen as positive for London.
He is allowing much of the city’s modern bus fleet to go to rust and waste because he doesn’t like its design. He is cutting the number of Metropolitan Police officers. And, while he bangs on about not putting up his share of the council tax, he has put up fares massively – hitting low-paid and middle-income Londoners hardest.
Labour needs a candidate who can get behind Johnson’s populist façade and expose his unbending support for the financial services sector, the contradictions and inconsistencies in his policies and win back City Hall as the first step on the road back to government.
This article was published in Tribune on the 11th of June.