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Posted: 01.07.24

Race for City Hall: Changing Times

If I were ever Prime Minister, I’d limit General Election campaigns to 28 days, maximum. You can sleep safe in the knowledge there’s about as much chance of me reaching 10 Downing Street as there is my hair growing back.

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But the point remains – after six weeks (and many more months before this) on the campaign trail, everyone is shattered. The public have had enough, the media have run out of new things to say, party activists are done in and our politicians are knackered. And that’s coming from me – a full-on politics geek.

That our political system necessitates an immediate transfer of power is something else I find a bit crazy. All sides deserve a day or two after the big event just to recharge the batteries. Instead, if the polls are right, Keir Starmer will be projected into Downing Street around midday on Friday. Before the famous black door has even closed behind him, still sleep-deprived and powered solely by caffeine and adrenaline, he’ll have the nuclear launch codes thrust at him.

But enough about what might come in the next day or so. What about the campaign itself, from the moment a rain-soaked Rishi Sunak fired the starting pistol back on 22 May. How has it panned out? What are the stand out moments? What have we learned that we didn’t already know?

First of all, it’s fair to say the election hasn’t really ever caught fire in the public’s imagination. That’s partly understandable, given the polls consistently predict a hefty Labour win and it looks and feels like the majority of voters made up their minds months – if not years – ago. Closely controlling the election is also a deliberate tactic by Labour. Why, when so far ahead in the polls, take any risks?

Instead, they’ve adopted the much-feted ‘Ming vase strategy’ – the campaign is akin to walking across a polished floor carrying a priceless artefact – don’t do anything that risks a nasty accident.

Second, the Tories resemble a spent force. And when luck is against you, gaffes breed gaffes – from the comical way Sunak launched the campaign (drowned by rain and drowned out by blaring music), his D-Day fiasco and his ill-judged comments about Sky TV subscriptions, through to the Gambling Commission investigation into bets by senior Tory figures on the date of the election. Labour hasn’t had it all its own way – but even where things went wrong or the party had a sticky few days, it didn’t dent their support or resonate on the doorstep.

Labour’s one-word campaign slogan – ‘change’ – will no doubt have been chosen for them by the deafening chorus emanating from the focus groups. People are fed up and this is one of those sea-change moments which come along periodically in British politics – 1945, 1979, 1997 – 2024 looks like joining that list. There is really little you can do as the governing party when these tidal wave moments break on you.

Instead, the challenge is survival, and in numbers sufficient to build back in opposition – as both Labour and Conservative have done on all three occasions listed above, even if it took many years to do so. But might things be different this time? Are the Conservatives heading for sub-100 MPs as some polls suggest – and maybe even be replaced by the Lib Dems as the official opposition? We don’t yet know.

Third, with the resurgent Liberal Democrats, propelled by Ed Davey’s daily headline-grabbing antics, and a Reform party boosted by Nigel Farage’s return, we could well see the lowest combined vote share for Labour and Conservative since before the Second World War. Yet, the quirk of the first past the post electoral system could yet deliver Keir Starmer with the biggest majority since the 1930s.

Then there’s London. How has the capital figured in the campaign? Well, not very much to be honest. Not that I’m surprised – I’ve been banging on for a few years now about how London is way down the pecking order of priorities for both Labour and Conservatives. The former, safe in the knowledge they’ll hoover up votes in London, focusing attention elsewhere. The latter, winning a healthy majority in 2019 despite, over a series of elections, driven close to extinction in the capital. And both know full well there’s no votes to be had in the key battleground seats in the Midlands and the north by being seen to be nice to London – in fact, votes are won by being beastly to the capital.

Labour’s manifesto all but ignored London, with just a few mentions. The Conservatives did namecheck the city more, but around half of those involved a bit of Sadiq Khan bashing – seemingly learning nothing from May’s mayoral election when pursuing a similar strategy ended in a heavy defeat. One of the more eye-catching Tory policies was that inner London’s housing density should rise to levels seen in other European capitals. But let’s not beat about the bush – saying you’d squeeze in millions more into pretty solidly Labour areas was more about protecting Tory marginals in outer London than a policy intervention in the nation’s interest.

But the fact of the matter is that this has not been a policy rich campaign. Certainly not for Labour – the party’s desire to avoid risk taking and hostages-to-fortune, with cautious (perhaps even underwhelming) ambitions for government. The Tories have thrown more policy at the electorate – but thrown is the operative word. It didn’t hang together in a coherent way – it had more than a whiff of desperation from a party that knew it wouldn’t be in a position to enact what they were promising. And the voters likely saw through it for that reason.

Yet we find ourselves as a country in a really sticky position. Unlike in some of our dearest friends and nearest neighbours, the transfer of power from one moderate government to another looks like being stable and straightforward. But that doesn’t detract from the scale of the challenges ahead – a decaying fabric, an inability to build homes and key infrastructure, failing public services, faltering living standards and an economy that has forgotten how to grow.

Labour have been clear that the pursuit of growth is the top priority – without it, all other commitments are much harder to achieve. And to get growth, Britain needs to build – roads, energy infrastructure, new homes. This will mean taking sticky, difficult, unpopular decisions crucial to kickstarting the country – the next Government’s honeymoon period presents the perfect opportunity to take such decisions. 

While London might have been neglected in the manifestos, new ministers are likely to realise early on that getting the country’s economy growing quickly needs London firing on all cylinders. One of the most asked questions by ministers in the early weeks of the new government might well be ‘what can we do to help kickstart London’s economy’. 

The electorate in the last decade have shown themselves to be increasingly volatile and impatient. We saw the first seeds of that in the 2016 Brexit referendum, but more so in the 2019 General Election – a handsome Tory majority as a reward for breaking the deadlock on Brexit and re-orientating the nation’s attention on the left behind areas in the north and the Midlands. Yet five years later, many voters feel let down, and the appetite for change is greater than ever.

The pressure on the next Government to deliver – and show results quickly – is enormous. That’s why the first months after Thursday will be chock-a-block with expectations management from ministers – the country is in a pickle, it’s going to take many years to solve, be patient as our tough decisions bear fruit. Betting is a moot subject in this election, but what odds on the UK going the way of France, the historic two main parties shrunken to near insignificance? Ed Davey versus Nigel Farage in 2029 anyone? If the next government falters, don’t bet against it.