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Too close to call

Portland’s Heidi Moore reviews how candidates are faring in the run up to the London Mayoral elections and finds that the fight for the capital’s Mayor is far from over.

A year ago, the race to be London Mayor seemed already over. Opinion polls indicated that Ken Livingstone’s campaign to return to City Hall had stalled. Boris Johnson, the man who had beaten him in 2008, seemed on course for a comfortable re-election.

No one is now taking the result for granted. A YouGov poll early this year which placed the former mayor ahead for the first time sent shock waves through the Boris camp. What was doubly pleasing for Ken is the knowledge that it was YouGov which most accurately predicted the 2008 election result. Although their poll only indicated a narrow lead, with Ken scraping home by 51% to 49% on second preferences, it gave new heart to his campaign.

The poll underlined his personal strengths among voters of being in touch with the public and sticking to what he believes in. His promise to save Londoners money by cutting bus, train and tube fares by 5% also struck a chord.

As polling day gets closer, it is clear the lead is fluctuating and the result remains on a knife-edge. The latest poll for the Evening Standard by YouGov puts Boris ahead 46% to 45% but still within the range of polling error. The 2008 results saw Boris win on 42%, Ken on 36% and Brian Paddick on 9%. Current polling indicates that improving transport and tackling crime are the most important issues to voters. Ken leads on transport and Boris on crime. Londoners liked Boris’s handling of the August riots but clearly support Ken’s transport pledge.

One factor playing on both Boris and Ken’s minds will be the second preference votes. The polls show that currently neither Boris nor Ken will gain an outright 50% of the votes. With Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in third place on 6% both Ken and Boris will be keen to ensure his supporters put them as their second choice.

Ken has shown time and time again his skill in building a rainbow coalition with small parties and groups particularly in inner London but he will be playing catch up in outer London where Boris won the 2008 election. Interestingly current polls show Liberal Democrat voters prefer Boris to Ken by a margin of 58% to 42% but to balance this out the ‘Boris Labour’ vote, described by YouGov president Peter Kellner as Labour supporters who would back Boris for Mayor, has declined.

As the campaign unfolds in the capital David Cameron and Ed Miliband have been noticeably absent in supporting their Party’s candidates on the streets of London. Both have removed themselves from the campaign and the possibility that they might find themselves having to explain defeat on May 4th. The candidates seem more than happy with the situation. Given their personalities and self-belief, they are each likely to consider themselves more popular than their party leaders and see their intervention as a potential vote-loser.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that the campaign teams are not made up of seasoned party political veterans. Ken can call on a solid team of former staffer including Simon Fletcher who worked with him for 12 years including eight as his chief of staff when he was Mayor. Fletcher is now the campaign manager with Joe Derrett handling media relations. Political support comes in the form of David Lammy and Tessa Jowell as joint chairs of the campaign.

Following the success of his 2008 campaign Boris has reappointed Australian strategist Lynton Crosby to run his campaign. Nicknamed the ‘Wizard of Oz’, Crosby masterminded four consecutive general election victories for the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard and created the ‘doughnut strategy’ which successfully targeted Conservative leaning voters in the outer boroughs in the 2008 election. The ‘doughnut’ will be important to Boris this time but he can’t afford to believe their support can be guaranteed. Polling in 2008 indicated that many in the outer suburbs felt alienated by the Livingstone campaign but this isn’t something that Ken will let happen four years later.

Clearly the fight for Mayor of London is far from over and the next few months are going to be tantalising for political commentators. Will Boris be disciplined, stay on message and provide a solid media performance? Can Ken this time widen his appeal to build coalitions with voters in outer London as he has done successfully in inner London and increase the momentum on his transport pledge? And both will be thinking how they can woo those voting for the Lib-Dems and other candidates.

Coalition building will be key. It seems certain that it will be second preferences which will decide whether it is Boris or Ken who returns to City Hall. For the second election in two years, it may well be the Liberal Democrat votes who hold the balance of power.

Heidi Moore is an Account Director in Portland’s Public Affairs team. She has seven years’ experience as a public affairs consultant and worked in the Conservative Party Media Rebuttal Unit during the 2005 & 2010 general elections.