Labour makes first major mistake in the battle for City Hall 2016

Today, in his first interview as Labour’s campaign chief for London, Sadiq Khan announced that Labour will not pick its candidate to be Mayor of London until after the 2015 General Election. In doing so, the Tooting MP made two major mistakes.

This selection timetable simultaneously revealed that senior figures in Labour still doubt the party’s prospects of forming the next Government and made it much harder for the selected candidate to win.

Most people will have missed it. It was a small, almost throwaway, remark in an interview hidden away on page ten of the Evening Standard and published on a day when most politics followers will have been following Ed Miliband’s big announcement on the 10p tax rate. And, as a Conservative, I am almost loath to point out the error. But leaving the selection so late will hamper Labour’s prospects of victory in London in 2016.

With Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson having ruled themselves out from standing in the next mayoral election, both major parties face the daunting prospect of finding heavyweight candidates capable of taking on one of the biggest jobs in UK politics. Those candidates need to be chosen early and a major campaign to build their profiles and present what they stand for undertaken.

You could even argue that Ken Livingstone’s campaign to be Mayor of London started the minute the GLC was abolished in 1987 – some 13 years before the office of Mayor was even created.

Because the incumbent is a Conservative, Labour could have had the advantage in selecting their candidate ahead of time – the Conservatives will struggle to secure coverage for their candidate whilst the Mayor is still in office and the election some years off – and having them run a long-term campaign as a kind of ‘shadow Mayor’, popping up to comment on the serving Mayor’s decisions and mistakes. Instead it seems this role will now be filled my Mr Khan himself – probably putting him in poll position to secure the Labour nomination himself.

Worse still, this timetable implies that the top job in London politics is still seen by Labour’s big beasts as a consolation prize for failing to secure a seat in Cabinet in the event of a Labour defeat in 2015. One can already visualise Conservative campaign posters, designed to look like a job ad, and saying: “Not good enough to be Justice Secretary? Why not try running London instead?”

Seasoned followers of London politics will no doubt be quick to point out that the Conservatives selected Boris Johnson as their mayoral candidate in late 2007, barely more than six months before he went on to defeat Ken Livingstone at the polls in May 2008. However, my riposte is to point out that that is Boris, not so much a politician as a phenomenon whose entire career is based on breaking or transcending established political wisdom.  Whoever Labour’s candidate it is, we can be certain that he or she will be no Boris Johnson.

James Ford was an aide to Mayor of London Boris Johnson (2010-12) and is an expert on London politics. He currently works as an adviser to both PLMR and the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

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