How Zac lost, why Sadiq won, and what’s next

By - Friday 13th May, 2016

Local Conservative activist Robert Ward has experienced his first losing campaign. He’s now in a reflective mood

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London.
Photo by London Labour Party, used with permission.

So another election is done. The big prize was Mayor of London which Labour’s Sadiq Khan won. Congratulations to him.

Losing is not a good feeling. True, it could have been worse. Steve O’Connell was re-elected to the London Assembly with an increased majority; and losing the mayoralty doesn’t hurt half so bad as a victory by a Miliband led Labour party would have hurt in 2015. But it still hurts.

On the other hand, I don’t feel that it was due to any lack of effort on the part of Croydon’s Tories. The so-called ground war went, I thought, pretty well. We await detailed statistics of the votes cast for evidence.

When Zac announced his policies, I was impressed

Whether the mayoralty was winnable for us Conservatives, who knows? Although I voted for Syed Kamall in the selection process, I thought Zac Goldsmith was a good candidate.

His laid back style contrasted with Boris and Ken, but maybe it was time for a change. His strong environmental credentials were a good point of appeal for the vital second preferences.

When Zac announced his policies, I was impressed. He identified housing and transport as key issues, and stressed the linkages between them. He handled questions well, often giving straight answers to straight questions, not generally a politician’s strong suit.

To me, Zac’s plans made more practical sense, but were harder to get across to voters

On the other hand, Sadiq Khan, who had beaten the popular Tessa Jowell to become the Labour candidate, was rightly criticised for a long track record of changing his position to suit the prevailing political wind. His policies were tactical and populist, similar to those that had failed to get Ed Miliband elected last year.

The difficulty is that populist policies like freezing fares and a ‘hopper’ bus ticket, paid for supposedly by the no-pain, nebulous squeezing of Transport for London budgets, is an easier sell. Zac’s plan was to preserve TfL capital spending, unlock access to housing, and squeeze TfL budgets but (if it couldn’t be avoided) put up fares, makes much better practical sense, but is harder to get across to voters.

What was needed was good election communications and plenty of air time with Zac and Sadiq discussing these issues. It didn’t work out like that.

An already difficult election for the Tories needed a different narrative for it to become winnable

In the latter part of the campaign the issue became solely whether Zac was conducting a racially biased campaign. Every Labour politician with the exception of Sadiq himself mentioned it at every opportunity, allowing Sadiq to stand above the argument and push his agenda. Disappointingly the Tory campaign failed to respond.

Interviews with Zac became purely about that issue. His sensible policies barely got a look in. The last Sunday before polling day I well remember Zac somewhat plaintively ending an interview with “I wish we could have talked about London”.

Did this affect the result? Of course it did. An already difficult election for the Tories needed a different narrative for it to become winnable. When that didn’t happen it turned the difficult into the almost impossible.

Race and religion should, amongst many other things, not be a factor in election to representative office

Having won, Sadiq now feels comfortable expressing the line previously voiced by every Labour politician except him on the Goldsmith campaign. This is an attempt to inflict longer term damage to the Tories.

How the Tories might respond is way above my pay grade, but it is important that we do. Race and religion should, amongst many other things, not be a factor in election to representative office. The Tory party stands for equality of opportunity. Making that clear and obvious is a challenge.

It is equally true that policy, principle, judgement and character must be factors, and it is quite right that any candidate should be scrutinised on those aspects. How to achieve that, most obviously when Sadiq Khan presumably stands again in 2020, is a second challenge.

The hope for mayoral mitigation of some of Croydon Council’s more damaging policies has gone

Back at local level we now have a Labour mayor and a Labour council. The hope for mayoral mitigation of some of Croydon Council’s more damaging policies has gone. Expect more Purley skyscrapers and Fairfield Halls high-handedness. One might also hope for less ducking of responsibility by blaming someone else now that Boris has gone, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

An interesting chink of light is that the new mayor wants to lead “the most transparent, engaged and accessible administration London has ever seen”. He might wish to have a word with Croydon’s Labour council who similarly promised to be an “accountable, open and transparent council”.

I suggest that you all download a copy of Sadiq Khan’s manifesto and store it alongside Labour’s manifesto from the 2014 council elections. Although you will see much vagueness and ambiguity in both (‘strive to this’, ‘work to do that’, ‘prioritise the other’), both have some clear commitments. Delivering on those commitments, verifiable (perhaps) through this new-found transparency is one of the criteria against which the new mayor, and our council, should be judged.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Anne Giles

    So true and very depressing indeed.

  • NeilB

    I agree with this. “Race and religion should, amongst many other things, not be a factor in election to representative office”.

    However , which candidate highlighted his religion in his campaign literature ? I don’t know Zac Goldsmith’s religion.

    • Robert Ward

      I do not know whether Zac has a religion or if he does which it might be. His father was of German/French Jewish origin and his mother from an Irish Protestant family. In spite of the anti-semitism scandal ongoing in the Labour party at the time of the election campaign, Zac made absolutely no mention of his family background or that scandal

      • NeilB

        Sorry, I did not express my point clearly, which was that it was Sadiq Khan who brought his religious identity in to the campaign, and was highlighted in his leaflets.

        I agree that Zac did not , which is how it should be.

    • Tom Black

      Which candidate had his association with Muslims raised in Parliament by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom?

      • Robert Ward

        In what was in my opinion a rather clumsy intervention David Cameron raised Sadiq Khan’s associations at PMQs. David Cameron has in the past raised Jeremy Corbyn’s associations, for example his reference to Hezbollah as ‘friends’. If Corbyn were a muslim would that be somehow different?

        • Tom Black

          With respect, that’s whataboutery that is (no doubt unintentionally) getting away from Neil’s question, which was phrased in such a way that implied the Conservatives didn’t try to make any hay out of our new Mayor (then-candidate) being a Muslim. I was pointing out – in rather Debating Society form, I admit – that this is a very unfair and inaccurate version of events.

          The number of senior and junior Conservatives who could not distance themselves from BackZac quickly enough by the end of the campaign speaks for itself.

          • Robert Ward

            Nooo Tom. Anything but whataboutery. I though I was posing a thought provoking question. Oh well.

            My view, which I think is what Neil is saying, is that Zac did not try to make hay out of his opponent’s religion. What I do think happened is that Labour was able to stitch together a narrative that implied that he was, which made a difficult campaign to win almost impossible. This was made worse by Zac’s campaign’s inability to respond. They just kept ploughing the same furrow.

            I do not accept that if some Conservatives might be distancing themselves from Zac’s campaign that proves anything. The Mayor of London election is unique. Central government does not know how to deal with it. Ken and Tony Blair; Boris and David Cameron had the same problem. Winners get hugged closer even when the relationship is prickly. Losers, well, just lost, can’t be our fault, must be theirs.

            I think, and thought at the time,that Sadiq ran a good campaign (and has handled things well since he won) and Zac ran a campaign that had some weaknesses, but not in the way that you think.