How Sadiq Khan won the London mayoral election

George Eaton in New Statesman:

Gettyimages-528599190This time, the polls weren’t wrong. For months, as Sadiq Khan maintained his lead over Zac Goldsmith, the Labour candidate’s team were haunted by memories of the 2015 general election. The Conservatives’ unforeseen majority meant victory was never assumed. Labour MPs feared that low turnout or a “Bradley effect”, with voters shunning a Muslim candidate in the privacy of the polling booth, would destroy Khan's hopes. But his victory was just as comfortable as forecasts suggested. In the final round of voting, Khan beat Goldsmith by 57-43, the second largest margin since the mayoralty was established in 2000 (the year Ken Livingstone defeated Steve Norris by 58-42). With more than 1.3m votes, Khan achieved the biggest personal mandate of any politician in UK history. It is hard to recall that his triumph was never initially regarded as inevitable. London is a Labour city but one that has twice elected a Conservative. Many predicted that Zac Goldsmith – telegenic, green, liberal, independent-minded – would emulate Boris Johnson’s achievements. Yet the Tory candidate was not merely beaten but thrashed. After a cynical campaign that painted Khan as the friend of Islamist extremists, he suffered the worst fate for a politician: losing with dishonour.

Khan’s strategists cited four insights as central to his success. The first was that “personality matters more than policy”. Having seen Miliband defined by his opponents (“weak”, “weird”, “treacherous”), Khan’s team “set out hard and fast to paint a picture of who he was”. His election leaflets rooted his policies in his personal story: “the bus driver’s son who’ll make commuting more affordable”, “the council estate boy who’ll fix the Tory housing crisis” and “the British Muslim who’ll take on the extremists”. By the end of the campaign, journalists groaned at the mention of his bus driver father: a sure sign of success. As victorious campaigns testify, the best messaging is simple and repetitive. “The bus driver’s son” was Khan’s equivalent of the Tories’ “long-term economic plan”. By contrast, Goldsmith failed to define himself personally, allowing Labour to paint the billionaire’s son as posh and aloof. The second insight was that policy should be announced early – and then endlessly reannounced. All of Khan’s signature pledges – the fares freeze, “first dibs” on new homes, the “London living rent” – were made by January.

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