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Sadiq Khan is on course for a big win – so what do Londoners want from their mayor in a second term?

Dr Patrick Diamond, Director of Queen Mary's Mile End Institute (MEI) has written an opinion piece for The Conversation on Sadiq Khan's chances in the upcoming Mayor of London elections. His analysis is based on recent polling commissioned by the MEI.

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People entering a polling station
People entering a polling station

Polling shows Sadiq Khan is set to secure a second term as London mayor on May 6. He is easily beating his Conservative rival, Shaun Bailey, who looks likely to suffer the worst defeat of a Tory candidate for the mayorality since the office was created more than 20 years ago. According to our latest poll with YouGov, Khan is currently leading Bailey by 47% to 26% on first preferences. In the final round, the current mayor would beat his rival by 66% to 34%.

The Mile End Institute (MEI) at Queen Mary University of London has been analysing the changing political landscape in the nation’s capital over the last four years through our regular polls. We’ve found that Khan’s political strengths are his perceived competence, the fact that his policy agenda resonates with the concerns of many Londoners, and the relative dominance of the Labour party in the capital.

In relation to performance in City Hall, the mayor has retained his net positive rating, with 45% saying he is doing well and 42% saying he is doing badly – although this has declined slightly since November, when 44% said he was doing well and 39% said badly. Indeed, voters believe that Khan’s handling of the pandemic has been reasonably effective, even though the mayor does not control the funding of the National Health Service; nor does he have legal powers through which to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Londoners have clear views about the priorities for the mayor if he is successfully elected for a second term. The poll results show that the top three concerns for public investment are the National Health Service (63%), housing (58%) and policing (42%).

When asked what would help to make London a more “liveable city”, respondents highlighted the top priorities as more affordable housing (56%), tackling anti-social behaviour (43%), improving air quality (30%), and building more homes for social rent (24%). Khan is emphasising his plan to support 170,000 green jobs and employment for young people but a higher priority for voters appears to be concerted action to tackle anti-social behaviour and crime on the city’s streets.

More controversial are plans for regulating car use in London. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) at the behest of London boroughs reduce the number of motor vehicles on residential streets. Over half of Londoners (52%) support them. However, when asked about expanding the congestion charge to cover Greater London, there was considerable disquiet, with 62% opposing an extension.

Delicate coalition

The incumbent mayor is advantaged by the Labour party’s strength in London. In the Greater London Authority elections that will take place alongside the mayoral race, 46% intend to vote Labour (down slightly from 50% in November 2020). Among 18- to 24-year-olds, Labour support rises to 67% and among black, Asian and multi-ethnic voters, Labour voting intention stands at 64%. Almost half (49%) the London middle-class say they support Labour.

But while Khan is on course for a solid victory, the challenge for him, and indeed the Labour party as a whole, is that they are relying on a relatively narrow electoral coalition to deliver that victory.

Khan is positioning himself as the “truly green candidate” in the race, solidifying his support among younger, liberal-leaning supporters. In doing so, however, there is a risk that he alienates other sources of traditional Labour support. For example, it is noticeable that voters over the age of 65, those living in the outer boroughs, and those who voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum are less likely to support Khan or Labour. Among the over-65s, Khan has a -29% rating for his performance as mayor. Middle-class Londoners give him a net favourability rating of 11%, whereas among working-class voters, the figure is -9%. Black, Asian and Multi-Ethnic voters (necessarily a diverse and complex grouping) generally rate him far more highly than white voters.

At his manifesto launch, Khan trumpeted his success in expanding cycling infrastructure during his tenure in City Hall. But older white voters appear less comfortable with the green agenda. Our survey found that voters over the age of 65 were overwhelmingly hostile to extending the congestion charge, with 80% saying they were against such a move. Opposition to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods was significantly greater amongst those who voted for Britain to leave the EU (51% were against; 36% were in favour), compared to those who voted remain (61% were in favour; 31% were against). Older voters wanted to see initiatives that tackle anti-social behaviour on London’s streets, while improving “quality of life”, such as cultivating more shops on local high streets.

The cultural cleavage between “progressive” and “conservative” voters, even within London, is firmly entrenched. We found that while 66% of Londoners over the age of 65 approve of a government plan to fly the union flag over government buildings, only 27% of young people (aged 18-24) do so. It will be a challenge for politicians, even those as adept as Khan, to address the divide in attitudes that now characterises London’s politics. Even so, the importance of cultural issues ought not to be overstated. Our survey shows that the core priorities in the capital that are under the mayor’s control remain jobs, housing and policing. It is on these issues that Khan will ultimately be judged in his second term.

This opinion piece was originally published in The Conversation on 13 April 2021.

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email: p.jordan@qmul.ac.uk