How did Boris Johnson get elected as mayor of London?

Writing in the Spectator, James Kirkup argues that, while Boris Johnson is today a Marmite figure whose hardline right-wing Brexiteer politics have alienated a large section of the electorate, he has in the past distinguished himself from other Tory politicians by his ability to “reach voters beyond the party’s comfort zone”.

As evidence of this, Kirkup states that “Johnson in 2008 and 2012 won election as mayor of London, a city that leans firmly towards Labour and which is home to large numbers of people with university degrees and people from minority ethnic groups”.

Over the years this story has become received wisdom among political commentators. What they ignore is that Johnson wasn’t elected by the people of London. He was elected by the people of Greater London.

This is a huge sprawling electoral region whose boundaries were set by the then Tory government under the London Government Act 1963, which established the Greater London Council. In order to overcome the fact that London is indeed “a city that leans firmly towards Labour” the Tories included large swathes of suburbia in this new electoral region. Bexley, Bromley, Havering — places like that.

The people living in these areas don’t regard themselves as Londoners. They talk about going into London, or up to London. They don’t think of themselves as living in London. That’s because they don’t. These suburban boroughs don’t even have London postcodes.

Such areas have always been heavily Tory-voting, and even today the electorate there remains overwhelmingly white, with BAME voters in a small minority. Consequently Greater London has never “leaned firmly towards Labour”, on a consistent basis. The inclusion of these Tory-voting surburban boroughs outside London ensured that.

Over the decades, throughout the history of the Greater London Council and subsequently the London Assembly, the Tories have won as many elections as Labour has in Greater London, on the basis of this reactionary suburban vote.

Unlike its predecessor the London County Council, which was solidly Labour from 1934 until its abolition in 1965, the Greater London Council was always marginal. Labour won the first GLC election in 1964, but in 1967 they lost to the Tories, who retained control in 1970 before losing to Labour in 1973. The Tories won again in 1977 and lost to Labour in the final GLC election of 1981.

Since the establishment of the Greater London Authority, votes for the London Assembly have followed a similar pattern. In the most recent elections, of 2012 and 2016, it was Labour who won by a large majority. But in the first Assembly election in 2000 the Tories got the same number of seats as Labour. In 2004 the Tories gained a majority, and extended it further in 2008.

So the fact that Boris Johnson managed to win two mayoral elections in Greater London tells us nothing at all about his supposed ability to reach voters beyond his party’s “comfort zone”. What it demonstrated was his ability to mobilise the Tories’ existing suburban vote.

Check out the figures for the 2008 mayoral election. Overall Johnson got 139,772 more first preference and valid second preference votes than Ken Livingstone (1,168,738 compared with 1,028,966). But in the GLA constituency of Bexley & Bromley alone, Johnson got 86,789 more votes than Ken (134,678 as against 47,889). In other words 62% of Johnson’s total majority across the whole of Greater London was accounted for by voters in this single predominantly white, traditionally Tory-voting suburban GLA constituency.

Contrast this with the support Johnson received in the North East constituency, comprising the boroughs of Hackney, Islington and Waltham Forest, where he got 65,784 first and valid second preference votes as against 111,864 for Ken. In Lambeth & Southwark too Johnson finished well behind, with 55,601 votes compared with 93,692 for Ken. Yet these are the very areas of London that are “home to large numbers of people with university degrees and people from minority ethnic groups”.

So the premise of Kirkup’s argument is wrong. He fails to distinguish between London as a Labour-leaning city and Greater London as an electoral region which includes large numbers of right-wing suburban voters and historically has swung between Labour and the Tories. Far from winning over a Labour-leaning city, Johnson became mayor of London mainly on the basis of votes from people who didn’t actually live in London.

Update: Matthew Smith has posted an interesting response to this article at Indigo Jo Blogs (“Is Greater London really London?”).

I think Matthew misunderstands the purpose of my article, though. I wasn’t trying to find excuses for Ken Livingstone losing the London mayoralty. I was specifically answering James Kirkup’s assertion that by winning two mayoral elections in “a city that leans firmly towards Labour” Boris Johnson had demonstrated his ability to “reach voters beyond the [Tory] party’s comfort zone”.

My argument was that the mayor of London is elected by the people of Greater London, which is an electoral region that includes many Tory-inclined suburban voters and as a result does not “lean firmly towards Labour”. Greater London has always swung between Labour and the Tories, with the Tories winning as many elections as Labour, first of all for the GLC and then the London Assembly.

So the fact that Johnson managed to win two mayoral elections in Greater London provided no actual proof of his alleged appeal to voters outside the Tories’ traditional support base. What it really showed was his ability to enthuse and motivate Tory-sympathising voters who are concentrated in the outer suburban areas of Greater London.

You can see this clearly if you look at the first preference votes that Tory candidate Steve Norris got when he won in Barnet, Bexley, Bromley and Havering in the 2004 mayoral election, and compare them with the votes Johnson got when he won there in 2008. In all four of these outer suburban Tory-supporting boroughs Johnson managed to massively increase the Tory vote.

2004: Livingstone 29,620, Norris 34,730
2008: Livingstone 32,843, Johnson 57,747

2004: Livingstone 17,182, Norris 23,027
2008: Livingstone 16,832, Johnson 48,370

2004: Livingstone 23,801, Norris 36,494
2008: Livingstone 23,838, Johnson 73,682

2004: Livingstone 16,128, Norris 24,705
2008: Livingstone 15,066, Johnson 50,506

Overall, across the 33 boroughs of Greater London, Johnson got just short of 150,000 more first preference votes than Ken Livingstone in 2008. In these four suburban Tory-voting boroughs alone he got nearly 142,000 more votes than Ken.

It’s not often I quote the Daily Telegraph favourably, but in 2008 this is how that paper assessed Johnson’s election as London mayor:

“Mr Johnson’s victory was in part secured as a result of the increased numbers who took to the polls, as his team’s successful ‘doughnut strategy’ of wooing natural Tories in the outer boroughs who in the past failed to vote in London elections proved devastating for Labour. The toppled mayor, Ken Livingstone, proved equally successful in getting the vote out in his inner London heartland, but was outnumbered by the more numerous suburban residents.”

Unfortunately this has now been forgotten by those political pundits who insist on maintaining the myth that Johnson succeeded in winning two London mayoral elections despite a supposedly Labour-leaning electorate because of his popularity among voters who were not typical Tory supporters.

First published on Medium in June 2018