Taking stock of the 2024 GLA election

Taking stock of the 2024 GLA election: The more things change, the more they stay the same

Published: 3 July 2024

Taking stock of the 2024 GLA electionThe more things change, the more they stay the same

By Clémence Leveque 

On the 2nd of May 2024, alongside other regional elections across England and Wales, voters went to the polls to elect the Greater London Authority (GLA) for the seventh time since its creation in 1999 by Tony Blair’s government. Examining these results can help us understand the changing political geography of the capital ahead of polling day at the UK general election, which followed the May locals unexpectedly quickly.

The Mayor of London, with the largest direct mandate in the UK, provides leadership for the capital, promotes economic development and the well-being of Londoners. The less well-known Assembly holds the Mayor to account, notably by being able to veto his budget by a 2/3 majority.

Up until the 2021 election – due in 2020 but postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic – the Mayor had been elected under the supplementary vote (SV) system. Voters could express two preferences, which required candidates to appeal across party lines to win the second preferences of other candidates’ supporters. The Assembly was – and remains – elected with the Additional Member system (AMS): 14 members are elected with First-Past-the-Post to represent “super-constituencies” while 11 are London-wide members, elected through a PR-list system to ensure a balanced representation of political forces in the capital.

Following the Elections Act 2022, the London Mayor was elected using FPTP for the first time. Although the Conservatives’ stated aim was to simplify the voting system, some feared the change would weaken the mayor’s mandate and legitimacy to act as the capital’s spokesperson. Voter ID requirements were also introduced, allegedly to tackle electoral fraud, but created the risk of further reducing an already low turnout and disenfranchising underprivileged communities in London’s inner-city areas. Both changes were seen by the opposition as helping Conservative success in Labour-dominated territory.

Far from the scandal-ridden contests between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson in 2008-12 or Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith in 2016, the May 2024 contest was a low-key election. 13 candidates competed to become mayor. In 2021, to stop the spread of Covid, reduced nomination requirements had led to 20 candidates standing, the mayoral ballot paper being changed and an increase in the number of spoilt ballot papers.

Widely predicted to win a third term, although with varying margins of victory (from 13 to 27%), Khan ran a quiet campaign. While Labour feared this likely win would spur voter apathy, speculation around an upcoming general election drew voters’ and party strategists’ attention away from the London contest. In the event, turnout was only slightly down (40.5%) on 2021 (42%) and 2016 (46%).

Despite barely mentioning her national party – a strategy which would be repeated all over Great Britain in the general election campaign weeks later - Conservative Mayoral candidate Susan Hall shared its contempt for ‘woke’ London. The first female candidate for one of the main parties endorsed extremist views on social media, linked Khan’s Muslim faith with terrorism, criticised his anti-crime record, spread misinformation on the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), and appeared out-of-touch with Londoners’ values and concerns. While outpolling her national party, she achieved the Conservative’s lowest vote share since 2000 (32.7%).

Despite lacklustre approval ratings, Sadiq Khan did win a third term, although with the lowest proportion of votes since 2000 (43.8%), a direct consequence of the move to FPTP. Voters engaged in tactical voting, as evidenced by the slight increase from his number of 1st preferences in 2021 (40%). Highlighting the risk that FPTP could give the Tories a chance to win, Khan heavily targeted Remainers and tried to squeeze Green and Lib Dem voters. The Green vote share was down two percentage points on 2021 while it stayed the same in the list vote, where voters usually express their true preference. FPTP also impacted independents and smaller party candidates who garnered 8% of the vote against 12% in 2021.

Khan increased his margin of victory from 4.7 percentage points in 2021 to 11 in 2024. Swings in his favour were noticeable both in inner and outer London. Despite the Conservatives’ by-election victory in Uxbridge in July 2023 (by just 495 votes), there was no motorist backlash against the ULEZ. Khan also managed to win the support of both Jewish (e.g. Barnet and Camden) and Muslim voters (e.g. City and East) despite Labour’s ambivalent stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict. It appears that taking a strong stance on controversial issues is not necessarily a vote-loser.

The South-West constituency provides an interesting case study. The Conservatives lost control of Richmond and Kingston councils in 2018 to the Lib Dems, but kept the seat in 2021 – which they had held since 2000 –, while their mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, came first. Since then, their further local decline has echoed their national unpopularity: in 2022, they won just eight councillors in Kingston and one in Richmond, whom they subsequently lost in a by-election in January 2024. Hounslow, the third borough in the GLA constituency, is heavily Labour.

In 2024, voters favoured Khan for the mayoralty, while electing a Liberal Democrat assembly member for the first time, showing their savvy use of the different voting systems at their disposal. This confirms the Lib Dems’ efficient targeting of the seat since 2021, and their increased hold on the South-West of London, with three MPs, two councils and a GLA seat, which could bode well for their attempt to (re)gain Wimbledon and Carshalton and Wallington. Nevertheless, the Lib Dems’ ability to circumvent FPTP in the constituency led them to being damaged by the proportional aspect of the election and miss getting their third list candidate, mayoral hopeful Rob Blackie, elected. Equally ironically, the Tories, who also lost the West Central constituency to Labour, ended up with three constituencies and five top-up seats: the AMS system they had chosen not to change thus saved their representation.

For the first time since 2008, the Liberal Democrats were able to keep their deposit and finish third, though only 70 votes ahead of the Greens. They won two seats on the Assembly, while the Greens took three. Despite trying to squeeze the Reform vote, Susan Hall’s party haemorrhaged support to the right, with Reform taking one list seat. With 11 assembly seats, Khan is certain to get his budget through and roll out most of his pledges. 

If national politics do influence mayoral contests and some voters do use local elections to send a message to the government, one should be cautious of treating the GLA elections as second order elections or opinion polls. Personality, record and vision matter as much to voters, if not more, than party labels. People vote differently at different elections, and turnout is likely to be higher in the generals than in the GLA election.

The results nevertheless bolster London’s status as a Remain-leaning and increasingly Labour-voting capital. With an unpopular mayoral candidate and national government after 14 years in power, it was unlikely that the Conservatives could turn London blue, but their decision to change part of the voting system clearly backfired. In what was a heavily Conservative city in 2008, the party now holds five out of 32 boroughs and only took two wards from Labour during the 15 local by-elections that also took place on May 2. 

General election polls seem to confirm the Tories’ likely retreat in the capital as with the rest of the country, with the party being projected to win between one and seven seats, down from 21. The Tories have continued attacking Khan and calling on Reform voters to vote tactically to avoid Keir Starmer getting a “supermajority”.

Despite Starmer having launched his general election battle bus in Uxbridge, London does not feature high in Labour’s campaign as the party is trying to regain ground in Scotland and the North of England. Yet, the party has been grabbing the headlines for its internecine warfare, with Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Faiza Shaheen standing as independents. Although these internal wranglings could split the progressive vote in some constituencies, it is unlikely it will loosen Labour’s overall grip on London, or indeed substantially damage its majority in the Commons.

While Sadiq Khan’s first two terms have been marked by tensions with central government over issues such as the TfL bailout or the London Plan, a more constructive relationship could emerge if Starmer wins the premiership - Khan’s manifesto seems to have been written in close cooperation with Labour HQ. If, as predicted, Starmer does come to power, several questions remain over his and Khan’s ability to resolve their policy differences or over the growing calls for further (especially fiscal) devolution to London and other city-regions. Meanwhile, London potentially morphing into a one-party city after July 4th also raises questions over the future of democracy and accountability in the capital.

 

Clémence Leveque is a PhD candidate in British politics at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris. Her research focuses on the Liberal Democrats’ 2021 GLA election campaign. 

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