How did Sadiq Khan become Mayor of London?

In case you’ve become a bit bored of hearing about the recent snap election, I thought I’d delve back to the long ago days of 2016 and have a look into the London mayoral election.

With incumbent Boris Johnson choosing not to stand again, it was essentially a contest between Zac Goldsmith from the Conservatives and Labour’s Sadiq Khan. At the moment, approval ratings show that the majority of Londoners think that Khan is doing a good job as Mayor, however, given the circumstances it is actually quite surprising that he won. I’ve had a think about how, and why, it happened.

First, here’s why it’s surprising that Khan was able to win.

The role of Jeremy Corbyn

At the time of the mayoral election, Jeremy Corbyn was not popular, with approval ratings a long way into the negatives. This was especially the case in London. Khan was an early backer of Corbyn for Labour leader, something that you would expect to work to his disadvantage. Goldsmith attempted to capitalise on this, and stressed Khan’s association to Corbyn on his campaign leaflets.

The Boris effect

Although a bit of a marmite figure, the outgoing Mayor of London had performed reasonably well in his two terms at City Hall. Boris Johnson had overseen the implementation of the 2012 London Olympics, introduced the new Routemaster buses and carried out his predecessor’s idea for a cycle hire scheme (they were later dubbed ‘Boris Bikes’).

Most significantly, Johnson was always a staunch opponent of Heathrow expansion, something most Londoners oppose. Although Khan also stated his opposition to a third runway at the airport, his voice contrasted more sharply to the opinion within his Labour party. The Conservatives were much more divided on the issue.

In short, Boris was a reasonably popular figure, and in giving a strong endorsement to Zac Goldsmith, Khan would have been immediately at a disadvantage.

So why did Khan win? For me, it was less of a case of how and why he won, but more how Goldsmith lost. Although traditionally London has been a Labour stronghold, for me it was mistakes made along the way by Goldsmith and the Conservatives that gifted Khan the win.

Goldsmith as a candidate

The son of a billionaire and an aristocrat, it’s safe to say that Goldsmith doesn’t stand out as a ‘man of the people’. I can see why the Tories chose him as their candidate though. He won a huge majority in his Richmond Park seat in 2015, and compared to the other candidates he was probably the most well-known and best option available.

However, Goldsmith didn’t excite London like Khan did. The son of a bus driver proved more appealing and Londoners felt that they could trust the Labour candidate much more. I don’t think that this was Goldsmith’s fault, he just wasn’t the right person for the job.

The Conservative campaign

In the past month, questions have been asked about how well Theresa May’s campaign went during the snap election. However, I’d argue that the Tory campaign last year was far, far worse.

To start with, it was overwhelmingly negative. Goldsmith used a similar tactic to May in criticising the opposition, as opposed to focusing on his own policies. As a result, while Khan’s policies became well-known (the hopper bus fare for one, which was very popular), I don’t think that people knew what they were voting for with Goldsmith.

Then there was the way that Goldsmith attempted to portray Khan as a terrorist sympathiser and threat to national security because he was Muslim. This didn’t work and just led to Goldsmith seeming Islamophobic as a result. In a city as multicultural as London, this was never going to be a clever idea.

The result of all this was Khan winning 44% of the vote, compared to Goldsmith’s 35%: a sizeable victory. Khan has enjoyed a strong popularity since, and according to the HuffPost in March 2017 had an approval rating of +35, which is huge.

At the moment, especially given the roll that Jeremy Corbyn is on, I can’t see anyone beating Khan in 2020 if he chooses to stand again. However, only time will tell whether or not he will be able to maintain this popularity for the next 3 years.