At the General Election in May, London was the only source of good news on an otherwise apocalyptic night for the Labour Party. Labour gained seven seats in the capital, taking their London total to 45 out of the possible 73 seats. This meant that the battle for control of London’s City Hall in 2016 took on a greater significance for the Labour Party and will be the first major electoral test for the new Labour leader.
Polls had repeatedly shown that former Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell was the only Labour mayoral hopeful with any chance of beating Zac Goldsmith, the most likely Conservative challenger, and she was widely regarded as the front runner for the Labour nomination. Instead, it seems she has become the first victim of the ‘Corbyn surge,’ with her historic support for both Tony Blair and the invasion of Iraq making her an unlikely choice for the huge number of new, pro-Corbyn supporters that have flooded the Labour election process.
Although Sadiq Khan’s politics are easily to the left of Jowell’s within the Labour Party, he still falls a long way short of qualifying as a Corbynista (though this is a distinction that the Tory press is unlikely to bother making). Therefore, other issues are also likely to have played a part in Khan’s election. He was much more vocal in his criticism of a third runway at Heathrow than his nearest Labour rivals and forward-thinking Labour supporters may have wanted to make sure that the Conservatives were not able to lockdown the support of anti-Heathrow voters in West London from the offset.
Khan’s campaign also benefitted from the endorsement of former mayor Ken Livingstone. Over his lengthy association with London politics Livingstone assembled a powerful coalition of unions, community groups and leftwing campaigns which he honed into an effective political machine – so effective, in fact, that it propelled him into City Hall as an independent candidate in 2000, pushing the Labour candidate into third place. The close links between Livingstone’s formidable network of backers and former aides and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership team – personified by Simon Fletcher, who was chief of staff to the former and is now campaign manager for the latter – suggests that there is likely to be a more harmonious relationship between the Labour leadership and the party’s mayoral campaign team than might have been expected if Jowell was the candidate.
However, Sadiq Khan is not only Livingstone’s choice, he’s probably Lynton Crosby’s preferred choice for the Labour nomination too. The Tory election strategist – who is already advising Zac Goldsmith – will relish fighting someone he must consider to be a polarising figure like Khan. Khan’s selection is likely to make class a central issue in the contest for City Hall. Khan, the son of a bus driver, will provide an interesting contrast to his likely opponent, Eton-educated millionaire Zac Goldsmith. But if there is one thing that Lynton Crosby can be said to specialise in, it is getting Etonians elected to high office – whether as Mayor of London or as Prime Minister.