It has fast become an article of faith for the commentariat: while Labour was floundering under Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan showed the way with his pro-business, centrist campaign to win the London mayoralty. Yet the truth is almost the opposite. Labour’s performance in the 2016 London Assembly elections under Corbyn was the best of any party since the Assembly was created, and Khan’s personal vote when compared to his party’s result was the least impressive of any candidate ever to have won the mayoralty. His support was entirely in line with that of his party. He won because he stood for Labour.
This inconvenient truth has been absent from the conversation. It suits Corbyn’s Labour detractors, his baying media critics, and of course Khan himself to contrast an electorally successful mayor with a hapless party leader. “Many in Labour hope that Khan will be the anti-Corbyn,” reported the New Statesman’s George Eaton shortly after Khan’s victory. “His personal mandate (five times greater than the party leader’s) makes him a rival figure of authority. Corbyn’s opponents have hailed the mayor’s inclusive and pro-business campaign as a masterclass in winning.” Critical to the victory were key electoral “insights” held by Khan’s strategists, Eaton wrote, including a belief that “personality matters more than policy.” It was all about Sadiq.
Even Blairites, who initially derided Khan as too left wing when he fought Tessa Jowell for the right to represent Labour in the contest, now hold up his victory as a rebuke to Corbyn. Khan himself has never been shy in citing his result as evidence of the superiority of his strategy, frequently making less than subtle comparisons with Corbyn’s approach.
The idea that Khan had a uniquely successful electoral formula rests on one big fact: more people voted for him than for any previous mayor, giving him the largest personal mandate of any politician in UK history. Yet this is not as conclusive as it sounds. Turnout in the 2016 mayoral election was the highest ever, and the potential electorate the biggest ever – it is hardly surprising that the candidate who won did so with more votes than any of his predecessors. The widely derided Zac Goldsmith, with nearly a million votes, also had one of the biggest personal mandates in UK history.
There is a better way to measure Khan’s performance, to get behind the absolute number of votes. At the same time as London’s mayoral elections take place, so do elections to the London Assembly, which are contested by the parties. When a mayoral candidate has a big personal effect on the vote, they out-perform their party’s result in the Assembly elections. In 2004, Ken Livingstone got 154% of the vote Labour achieved – he won over 240,000 more votes than did Labour’s candidates for Assembly seats, meaning that lots of non-Labour voters gave him their vote based on his personal appeal. In 2012, Boris Johnson won 135% of the votes of the Conservatives.
Khan only got 101% of the Labour vote in 2016. In other words, almost all of his support likely came from people who voted Labour anyway. Seeing as Labour dominated the Assembly election, with 44% of the popular vote compared to the Conservatives’ 31% (historically the best performance of any party in an Assembly election ever, despite apparently having an ‘unelectable’ leader), Khan would have had to try extremely hard to lose.
Here’s where Khan’s performance sits in the context of every London election since the mayoralty and the Assembly were created in 2000:
London mayoral candidates’ first-preference vote as a percentage of their party’s popular vote for London Assembly seats
1) Ken Livingstone, 2004: 154% of the vote Labour achieved
2) Boris Johnson, 2012: 135% of the vote the Conservatives achieved
(Ken Livingstone, 2000 as an independent: 133% of the vote Labour achieved)
3) Ken Livingstone, 2008: 133% §
4) Boris Johnson, 2008: 116% *
5) Zac Goldsmith, 2016: 112% §
6) Sadiq Khan, 2016: 101% *
7) Steve Norris, 2004: 97% * §
8) Ken Livingstone, 2012: 95% * §
9) Steve Norris, 2000: 88% * §
§ The candidate did not become mayor.
* The candidate’s party was in opposition nationally.
This reveals that Khan’s performance was not exceptional. In fact, it was distinctly underwhelming. Five other mayoral candidates have performed better compared to their party over the years (six if Livingstone’s run as an independent in 2000 is counted), including two who did not even win the mayoralty. One of those was Goldsmith. It is now a commonplace that the Tory candidate ran a racist campaign and was punished for it, but in fact it seemed to work to an extent – he polled 112% of the Conservative vote.
There is a caveat: in years when a party is in government, it should be easier for a mayoral candidate to out-perform their party’s Assembly vote. Conversely, if a party is in opposition and picking up protest votes from people dissatisfied with the government, that higher base leaves less headroom for a candidate to make a personal difference. Yet Khan’s performance compared to his party when Labour was in opposition in 2016 was significantly worse than Boris Johnson’s when the Tories were in opposition in 2008. That is surprising because in the wider local elections held in 2008, the Conservatives’ national projected vote share was sky high at 44%, while Labour’s was rock bottom at 24% – its “worst electoral performance for at least 40 years” according to the BBC. Yet Johnson still did better compared to his party when it was at a national peak than Khan managed compared to his party in 2016, when, according to the pundits, Labour was in crisis.
It’s possible to do the calculations in different ways, but the overall picture remains similar. The hybrid voting system used in the London Assembly elections, with seats decided on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and then topped-up with other seats decided by proportional representation (PR), means mayoral candidates’ performances can be compared with either the FPTP results or PR. I believe it’s best to use the FPTP element, since voters are likely to consider that their primary vote. On the other hand, the PR element should discourage tactical voting. If the candidates are compared against the PR top-up votes, it comes out like this:
London mayoral candidates’ first-preference vote as a percentage of their party’s vote for top-up seats on the London Assembly
1) Ken Livingstone, 2004: 146%
2) Boris Johnson, 2012: 137%
3) Ken Livingstone, 2008: 134% §
(Ken Livingstone, 2000 as independent: 133% of the vote Labour achieved)
4) Boris Johnson, 2008: 125% *
5) Zac Goldsmith, 2016: 119% §
6) Sadiq Khan, 2016: 109% *
7) Steve Norris, 2004: 102% * §
8) Ken Livingstone, 2012: 98% * §
9) Steve Norris, 2000: 97% * §
There is also a choice of two numbers to use for the candidates’ vote. All the above calculations are based on mayoral candidates’ first-preference votes. It might be objected that the second round run-off, in which voters’ second preferences are added to the totals of the two leading candidates, captures the full extent of Khan’s appeal – he finished with 1,310,143 votes. That’s a big number. But re-doing the sums based on second round totals actually sees Khan slip down one place in the league table of mayoral candidates, below Steve Norris’ losing 2004 performance (when the Tories were in opposition):
London mayoral candidates’ second round vote as a percentage of their party’s popular vote for London Assembly seats
1) Ken Livingstone, 2004: 186%
(Ken Livingstone, 2000 as independent: 155% of the vote Labour achieved)
2) Ken Livingstone, 2008: 153% §
3) Boris Johnson, 2012: 146%
4) Boris Johnson, 2008: 130% *
5) Zac Goldsmith, 2016: 122% §
6) Steve Norris, 2004: 119% * §
7) Sadiq Khan, 2016: 115% *
8) Steve Norris, 2000: 107% * §
9) Ken Livingstone, 2012: 106% * §
(The order is the same—with Khan in 7th place on the table—if the candidates’ second round vote is compared with the top-up element of the Assembly election.)
Of course, only racists would begrudge Khan his achievement as the first Muslim to be elected mayor of a major western city. But the repeated weaponisation of his win in order to attack Corbyn has become nauseating to Corbyn supporters who busted a gut campaigning for Khan’s triumph, with little recognition from the victor. These figures show that, just as those campaigners suspected, Khan’s success was not a purely personal achievement, but a collective effort.
Whichever way you cut it, set in historical context, Khan’s electoral performance compared to that of his party appears unremarkable, or even disappointing considering the poor quality of his opponent. Perhaps it was impossible for Khan to do any better – maybe he and Labour hit the ceiling of potential support in 2016, preventing Khan from out-performing his party. But that argument can only be made if it is accepted that Corbyn’s Labour did extremely well in the Assembly elections – and you won’t hear many of Khan’s admirers shouting about that.
Alex Nunns is the author of The Candidate, Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, published November 2016.