Paul Bickley

Will there ever be another Conservative mayor of London?

Will there ever be another Conservative mayor of London?
Boris Johnson when London Mayor, 2010 (photo: Getty)
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Even in these strange political times, it looks very difficult for a Conservative politician to become Mayor of London. In the 20 years since the advent of the mayoralty and the introduction of the London Assembly, only Boris – as we all know, an unusual politician – has managed to beat Labour, with successive terms in 2008 and 2012. He succeeded in this by being more popular than the Conservative party in London; a politician, even then, with an independent brand. In contrast, Ken Livingstone was less popular than the Labour party at the time.

These favourable winds are unlikely to blow again. On the contrary, the political ructions of the last five years, culminating in the Conservative party’s successful assault on the ‘red wall’, mean that London looks ever more like a city state with a political sensibility entirely detached from the rest of the UK (this perhaps explains the London-based media’s collective shock at the size and nature of Johnson’s General Election victory).

Sadiq Khan’s term of mayor has not been without its problems. However, like Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, he is adept at ‘punching up’ at national government (witness his recent comments about the recent TfL bailout). The Conservative candidate for the delayed election – Shaun Bailey – faces the daunting challenge of building on his vote in the suburban Conservative boroughs against a canny incumbent who is popular and largely perceived as competent.

But there could be a way for a Conservative to win. The latest Theos report, Religious London: Faith in a Global City, shows that London is significantly more religious than the rest of the UK. Using new data from Savanta ComRes, we found that 62 per cent of London residents, compared to 53 per cent in Great Britain (excluding London), said that they had a religious faith. Religious Londoners are also more observant than people outside the capital: 38 per cent of Londoners, for example, pray regularly, compared to 13 per cent in Britain. Prior to lockdown, 38 per cent of Christians in London attended a service at least once a month, compared to 17 per cent nationally.

These things in themselves offer no succour to Conservative candidates. Even if Anglicanism were still the Tory party at prayer (it’s not), then London – in spite of being the most religious place in the country – is also the least Anglican. In any case, religious Londoners consistently support Labour candidates in elections.

There is evidence, however, of shared ground when it comes to the political values of London’s religious citizens. Overall, 53 per cent of Londoners felt that the best way of tackling poverty is by generating wealth through strong business and private enterprise – only 40 per cent of non-religious Londoners agreed, versus 59 per cent of non-Christian religious respondents. Religious respondents were more likely to say that people shouldn’t rely on the welfare state, or that schools should teach children to obey authority (81 per cent of Christians and 76 per cent of other religious, versus only 51 per cent of the non-religious, agreed). Across a range of questions, the religious were more likely to support conservative perspectives.

The capital’s religiosity also makes London – again, perceived to be England’s liberal heartland – on average more socially conservative than the rest of the UK. On social questions like sex before marriage (24 versus 13 per cent say this is at least sometimes wrong), same-sex relationships (29 versus 23 per cent say this is at least sometimes wrong), and assisted dying (38 versus 27 per cent say this is at least sometimes wrong), London consistently looks more conservative than the rest of the country. Of course, conservative and Conservative are very different things, but a Conservative candidate should be better placed to connect with this more traditionalist political sensibility.

All election victories are built from coalitions or supporters. One route for a future Conservative candidate is to combine the traditionally conservative leaning outer boroughs, articulating a strong message on crime and disorder (one of Khan’s few weaknesses), and adding a greater proportion of the socially conservative religious than currently feel able to support a Conservative candidate. This, however, comes with a health warning. Ham-fisted attempts to trade up on racial and religious divisions, aside from being immoral, are exactly not the way to create that broad appeal to London’s diverse religious communities (as evidenced by Zac Goldsmith’s campaign).

But how can the Conservative party win over more Muslim voters? Around one in every eight Londoners is a Muslim. Beyond the cynical calculation of electoral appeal, any aspiring mayor has a duty to understand the needs of such a substantial constituency. It’s not that they present a block vote – every single citizen makes a complex set of judgements on their way to the polling station. Nor is there an obvious set of retail policies that a Conservative candidate could adopt which would recruit London Muslims to his or her cause. But I am reminded of a conversation I had with a former Obama adviser, critical of Hillary Clinton’s campaign: why did evangelicals vote in such large margins for Trump, I asked? The answer: he asked them to.

A Conservative candidate for Mayor faces significant ‘headwinds’, but the least he or she could do is be on friendly terms with the people who might just share many of their values.

Paul Bickley is a Research Fellow at Theos, and co-author of the report Religious London: Faith in a Global City