Oliver Cooper: Labour should be winning by a landslide in London - they're not

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Since May, you’d be forgiven for thinking that polling is the last refuge of the scoundrel.  I’ve always subscribed to the school that there are “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” only if you don’t understand statistics.  But when it comes to the latest London mayoral poll – which shows Labour just 7% ahead – I wonder if there’s more than meets the eye.

Labour is a party utterly dominated by London.  London was the only region Labour made real gains in May.  Reputedly nearly half of its membership is in London.  The largest Constituency Labour Parties in the country are all in London, with Islington North, Hornsey & Wood Green, and Holborn & St Pancras all topping 2,000 members.  And so long as Labour are embroiled in Corbyn-inspired navel-gazing, that’s unlikely to change.

That makes London the last bastion of the Labour Party.  In last year’s London council elections, Labour won by 11%.  This May, while Labour were folding across the country, they still won in London by 9%.

But even that was overstated in preceding opinion polls.  The last five London-wide general election polls showed Labour with an average lead of 12%.  So a 7% lead isn’t especially substantial – particularly when it comes from Survation: which has a pro-Labour statistical bias – or ‘house effect’.

History should caution us from taking such snapshots too seriously: not because of the 2015 election, but because of previous London mayoral polls.  The first poll for the 2008 election showed Ken Livingstone leading by 6% - he ended up losing by 6% on first preferences.  Even in 2012, with Boris Johnson as the established incumbent, the first poll showed Red Ken up by 1% - he lost by 4% on the day.

Commentators always overestimate how much Labour gain from second preferences. Ken Livingstone’s lead on second preferences has never exceeded 20,000, 1% of the total vote.  They’ve never made the difference for Labour and they’re unlikely to this time.

What may make the difference for the Conservatives is their candidate.  Both the frontrunners – Zac Goldsmith and Syed Kamall – are likely to outpoll the Conservative Party in London. But because they’ve been campaigning for less time than Labour’s candidates, that may not have been felt in the polls.

Zac is popular with voters across parties, and would be especially effective at winning second preferences.  And while Syed is an unknown quantity, he has a distinctive message and a phenomenal background story that helps the party reach beyond our base.  Either of them, once selected, would tear into the already-marginal Labour lead.

It’ll take a lot of hard work to replicate the success of Boris’s mayoral elections, but all the signs point to us being in the same position we’ve been in time and time before.  And as we showed before, with the right candidate and the right campaign, we can win in London.  It would be a disaster for Labour if they didn’t win their last bastion by a landslide – and it looks to me like they’re not winning by a landslide at all.

Oliver Cooper is a councillor in Hampstead and the Chairman of the Conservative Way Forward Organising Committee.

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