The mayoral fight for London’s business vote

We examine how the two main candidates are attempting to convince business that they are the right choice.

IMG: (left to right) Labour’s Sadiq Khan, Liberal Democrat’s Caroline Pidgeon, UKIP’s Peter Whittle, Sian Berry and Conservative’s Zac Goldsmith at the ‘Why I Should be Mayor of London Tomorrow’ debate, at the London School of Economics, London.


 

When it comes to the relationship between business and mayoral candidates of the two main parties, it really is a tale of two cities. Eager not to be perceived to be anti-business, particularly after nominating Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership election, Sadiq Khan has been straight out of the stalls and reportedly speaking to all major business stakeholders in the capital to understand their interests and begin constructive talks with the business community. Though Goldsmith has met some business stakeholders, he has been more reticent on the whole; perhaps conscious of a potential perception that he is in the pocket of the City. A poll by YouGov for LBC Radio this month revealed Khan had increased his lead over Goldsmith by five points since November (up to 31% compared with Zac’s 24%). However, with the short campaign period still to come and the contest heating up, there is everything to play for, and many in the Labour camp believe the Conservatives are keeping their powder dry until closer to polling day as a tactical move. In this context, look out for some sweeteners for London in the Chancellor’s March Budget immediately prior to the final weeks of the campaign, especially since a third of Londoners are still undecided.

The contest for the hearts and minds of businesses in the capital has been fairly punchy so far and the Conservatives have even accused Sadiq Khan of being in favour of abolishing the Corporation of London last month, a claim which was swiftly denied both by the Corporation and Khan himself. The Conservatives have also consistently raised the issue of Khan’s financial backing from trade unions as evidence that he will be uncritically in favour of disruptive industrial action, including tube strikes. On the whole, though, these charges don’t appear to stick, and Sadiq’s commitment to being ‘the most pro-business Mayor of London yet’, does appear to have worked in allaying any nascent concern.

Throughout the campaign, Sadiq’s strategy has been to kept things personal, reminding voters of the differences between his background and Goldsmith’s privileged upbringing.  He has emphasised that he has run his own business and returned to the Peter Jones store in which he worked as a teenager to launch Skills for Londoners last month, which will work with business to provide strategic leadership and identify gaps in London’s workforce. The Labour candidate has also announced a business advisory group and emphasised his support for small businesses and Tech City.

With the Goldsmith surname, on the surface it might appear that Zac has less work to do to persuade business of his credentials, but an important part of his campaign platform has been to set out a position that he is not a typical free market Tory. A major driver of Goldsmith’s campaign is also seeking to establish himself as independent – of both big business and Government –  and on the side of left-leaning Londoners: a kind of heir to Boris in presenting himself as independent-minded. In line with this, Goldsmith has also shown himself not to be afraid of calling out individual businesses that don’t please him – he has recently announced that he will force all black cabs to install contactless payment to “level the playing field” and he has criticised Uber publicly with regard to its salary and tax practices.

Having said this, Goldsmith has also produced policies directed towards a business audience, recently launching his business manifesto. Many of the proposals are focused on supporting the start-up and small business community, and he will also set up a 12-person Business Advisory Group comprised of representatives nominated by London business, which will draw up an annual list of priorities which will form the work programme for the Deputy Mayor for Business.

Another big question is how the next mayor will relate to the Government and represent London’s interests nationally – on key questions for the business community like business rates devolution. Both candidates claim that they will be able to work constructively with a Conservative Government to get the best deal for London but both are could bring their own set of challenges for Cameron and Osborne if elected. The first point of tension is likely to come soon after the election on the expected announcement on expansion at Heathrow, to which both candidates are opposed. Whoever edges ahead in the May vote, the relationship between London and Government is likely to get interesting in 2016.