Ipsos MORI has conducted a two hour focus group for the BBC’s Sunday Politics London, asking a cross section of the capital’s electorate exactly what it is they are looking for in the next mayor and exploring their perceptions of the two leading candidates. Paul Carroll summarises the findings.
With the end of Boris Johnson’s second term as mayor of London in sight, the capital is looking at a changing of the guard. But what do Londoners want from the next tenant of City Hall? The candidates from the two main parties — Labour’s Sadiq Khan and Conservative nominee Zac Goldsmith — have now been confirmed. But how will they be judged by the capital’s voters?
The Sunday Politics London has, over the past two weeks, shown our participants discussing Khan (see here) and Goldsmith (see here). Here we bring the two perspectives together and explore what is important to the London electorate as we gear up for the fifth mayoral election next year.
So what did they tell us? There are four key things to take from the discussion…
London comes first
“I didn’t see him as a Tory candidate. He’s his own person — just Boris — even though I know a lot of his policies are Tory policies.”
The electorate wants a mayor who understands the day-to-day experiences of Londoners, but also has the best interests of the capital at the heart of their decision making. This may seem obvious, but it is also clear that voters weigh their decision differently when choosing a mayor compared to when casting their ballot in a general election. The perception of the individual candidates, how they present themselves, and how they promise to represent London are more important than existing partisan allegiances.
Independence from their own party establishment is part of demonstrating that
“We’ve become used to independence in our mayor. I think we’d expect that from any future mayor.”
Participants told us that candidates should be prepared to deviate from the party line if it meant doing the best thing for London. In that regard, neither candidate was perceived to be especially beholden to the current leadership of either party, just as the two preceding mayors were. While participants acknowledged that they did not always agree with Boris Johnson or Ken Livingstone’s policies, each was seen as his own man, with the best interests of London at heart. Given this context, when shown footage of Sadiq Khan, participants suggested he comes across as someone who “means what he says”.
However, he was also described as “obvious” and “contrived”, which chimes with early Conservative criticism of him being a “machine politician” (although when prompted about his links to Ed Miliband — having run his campaign for Labour leader in 2010 — there was little sense that this mattered strongly). Nor was Zac Goldsmith perceived to have particularly close ties to the Conservative Party, in large part due to his campaigning on environmental issues.
Background is important, but isn’t the be all and end all
“If you want to be mayor of London you need to be in touch with people in all elements of society.”
On the one hand, Sadiq Khan’s background — born and raised a Londoner — meant that participants assumed he was an “ordinary guy” who would find it easy to understand everyday issues and who, through his ethnicity, was “representative” of the diversity of London’s population. This has the potential to provide a small advantage over his opponent — when shown footage of Zac Goldsmith, participants were less enthusiastic, describing him as “just another posh person from Oxford or Cambridge”.
On the other hand, Mr Goldsmith’s background suggested someone who would be effective when dealing with the business interests so central to London’s economy, and it would be wrong to assume that his background was an insurmountable negative. While it did not have the immediate resonance of Mr Khan’s story, participants were more interested in the candidates’ competence and ability to “know what they are talking about”.
Ultimately, participants suggested it was impossible for any candidate to be all things to all people — “you’re not going to get a one size fits all mayor, any more than when the Queen Mother went down to the East End in the Blitz, it didn’t change her lifestyle”.
Housing was the major issue among our participants
“We’re budgeting for everything… all of our money goes towards our rent.”
While they voiced concerns about healthcare, the economy and immigration, the group identified housing as their greatest concern (reflecting the picture from the Ipsos MORI Issues Index). They were particularly keen to know what the candidates proposed to do about the perceived lack of affordable homes. As such, the candidates’ policy positions were listened to with great interest. However, tackling such an important issue, one that affects so many Londoners, was believed to be a difficult task.
There was some scepticism about how effective either candidate would be at enacting their preferred policies — for example, Sadiq Khan’s proposal to establish a London Living Rent for new build properties and linking this to a third of the average renters’ income. Participants wanted to see more detail on how this would happen — “where will he get this stock of new property that is going to rent at the third of your income?”. It was apparent that there is some convincing to be done to get past voters’ natural cynicism about politicians’ promises.
Overall, it was clear throughout the focus group that our participants did not yet have a fully formed opinion on either candidate. If anything, Khan provoked stronger reactions, whether positive or negative, while reactions to Goldsmith were more neutral. However, given the electorate’s ever changing moods, we are at a very early stage of the process. Indeed, when this focus group took place, Zac Goldsmith had yet to be officially confirmed as the Conservative candidate. With the election not taking place until May 2016, neither candidate is fully defined in the minds of an electorate who remain willing to give both Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan a fair hearing before deciding how to vote.