Today, Sadiq Khan will do exactly what Zac Goldsmith (and Lynton Crosby) wants him to do – deliver a major campaign speech talking about Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s mayoral candidate will tell voters in Isleworth, West London that he is not Corbyn’s “patsy”.
Khan is clearly worried by repeated Conservative attacks trying to brand him as Corbyn’s “man in City Hall”, with speeches and leaflets that have called Khan “Jeremy Corbyn’s candidate” and saying that a Khan mayoralty would be “an experiment for Corbyn’s radical policies”. Even the Prime Minister has joined in, warning Londoners of the risks of becoming “lab rats in the first Corbyn economic experiment in public life” if Khan were elected in May. “Vote Khan, get Corbyn” is clearly a Conservative refrain for this election, and one aimed not just at mobilising core Conservative support but also winning over the vital floating moderates that the Conservatives desperately need if they want to keep hold of City Hall.
But, in directly responding to the Conservative attack, Khan is keeping the debate centred firmly on the issue that his opponents want to talk about – namely, his political proximity to Jeremy Corbyn – and not the issues that will boost Khan’s support, like his housing policies. Khan will never be able to fully rebut the Conservative attacks about Corbyn because it is common knowledge that Khan nominated Corbyn for the Labour leadership.
In distancing himself from Corbyn too aggressively, Khan risks alienating the significant number of Corbyn supporters across the capital, many of whose support undoubtedly helped propel Khan to victory in securing Labour’s nomination and who would now bolster his campaign’s ground operation.
This May’s London elections are, arguably, Labour’s – and Khan’s – to lose. Labour’s performance in London in last year’s General Election was much stronger than its national showing, winning 45 of the capital’s 73 parliamentary seats (that’s 7 more seats than the party took in 2010) and securing 44% of the vote compared to the Conservatives’ 35%. A recent opinion poll gave Sadiq Khan a commanding lead over his Conservative rival. Khan should be focusing on increasing his lead, not looking over his shoulder nervously.
This all begs a wider question: Why aren’t Labour strategists giving Khan better advice? The Conservatives are repeating the same strategy that helped them win in 2015 when they put Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s metaphorical pocket. Labour was unsuccessful in countering that attack head on, why aren’t they learning from their mistakes?
If Khan wants to win in May, he needs to spend more time differentiating himself from Zac Goldsmith and much less time differentiating himself than from his own party leader.