Boris and beyond: London mayoralty after BoJo?

If Boris Johnson wants to turn his victory over Livingstone et al. and his growing brand into a legacy, he needs to act quickly

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A Boris-branded City Hall (Picture from Newsbiscuit.com)
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Peter Botting
On 9 May 2012 09:33

There has been a lot of internet comment about alleged BBC bias in describing London Mayor Boris Johnson's victory with 51.5 percent of the vote as a "tight margin" while describing the French President-elect Francois Hollande's 51.7 percent as a "clear victory". 

This could be put down to a comparison between actual results versus expectations. Boris, after talk of four and six point leads did less well, hence “tight”, while expectations were less bullish for Hollande, hence his result was a “clear victory”.

In anyone’s terms a lead of 82,000 first preference votes and only 62,000 first and second preference votes out of 2,000,000 votes is as tight as hell. The Daily Mail reported Boris as winning by a “blond whisker”.

So lets talk about why the owner of the “blond whisker” won. Or as Nick Wood described him, Britain’s most powerful Tory. 

Clever and hard working, good at hiring and (after some initial hard lessons) retaining quality, good at delegating - all these things are true according to people who know him. 

Importantly, Boris was also happy to commission his own campaign team and machinery and not rely on the party machinery, led by Lynton Crosby. Without naming names, Conservative networks and machinery range in London from first class to invisible.

For me, Boris understands his job - outlining a vision, painting the dream and then hiring the right people to realise the dream. That makes him, as Stephan Shakespeare says, competent

But that was not enough to win this election. Competence is never enough. Perceptions of competence must be matched with likeability

But even competence and likeabilty don’t cut it in the super-sized personality contest that the London Mayoral Election has become. 

Drawing from Guido’s poll you could say that women like Boris while men like him or want to be like him. It is true that his slightly out of the ordinary name (Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, or BoJo) is a great branding tool  - as is his blond 'mop' haircut which is instantly and widely recognisable. Charming, funny, cheerful, self-effacing and media friendly, he is a campaign manager’s dream.

But how much is that Boris brand worth - and where will the non-Boris Conservative mayoral candidate be in 2016 without it? If the Boris brand was worth 10 percent of his votes - then without him the Conservatives would have been in deep trouble in both 2008 and 2012.

Boris's first preferences dropped by 33,000 from 2008 to 2012, while his opponent, Ken Livingstone’s first preferences only dropped by 4,000. So what happened to all these Labour voter, activists, members and commentators who were supposedly switching sides or staying at home? Did all the negative messaging focusing on Ken’s tax affairs, did all those headlines only result in a drop of 4,000 first preference votes? Surely not. Was their only effect the loss of second preference votes?

How come Ken only dropped 4,000 votes? Were the disaffected Labour voters replaced by new Ken converts? If there were no new converts - the London Labour vote is pretty resilient and strong at around the 890,000 level. If there were new converts, and they hang around for 2016, and the disaffected Labour voters come back…. draw your own conclusions.

How many of the 890,000 are Ken votes and how many are Labour votes? After the media battering meted out to Ken the 890,000 are either Labour voters who didn’t care or who held their nose or they include the new converts mentioned above. Is it safe to assume that the 890,000 votes are a rock bottom, rock hard, core vote that cannot be budged? 

I think we can all safely assume that in 2016, the Labour candidate will be clean, clean, clean. 

What would the result have been if Ken hadn’t come pre-packaged with built in, and ready to use, attack lines? Boris dropped 60,000 first preferences from 2008 to 2012 - what would have happened if Ken had gone up by 60,000 votes?

Did the damage to Ken result in a slump of second preferences from other candidates, including the Liberal Democrats, rather than any major damage to the Labour vote? The Lib Dems vote slumped, gaining less than half the first preference votes they got in 2008. Did their votes just stay away or did they go to the independent candidate, Siobhan Benita? Will those second preference votes increase and be in play in 2016, giving a potentially decisive boost to the Labour candidate? Will there be more independents and where will their second preference votes go? 

Victory in 2016

To win in 2016, The Conservatives will have to launch a full throated combination of a turnout campaign and a reach-out campaign - aiming hard at first and second preference votes. Somebody had better “relationship manage”, curate and maintain the machinery and the data collected and built so well by Lynton Crosby. And the search needs to start soon for the candidate with the potential to have the same size brand as Boris. 

Unless we find an equally likeable and recognisable big-brand Conservative candidate…. and the country is in “feel good” boom time... and Labour put up another mayoral candidate with a target tattooed to their tax returns.

Unless all these things happen, the chances of there being a Conservative Mayor in 2016 who will dutifully finish any unfinished business on the Boris “to do” list is unlikely. 

If Boris wants to turn his victory and his brand into a legacy, he needs to act quickly. 

Peter Botting is a professional corporate, political and personal messaging strategist. He was integral to theNO2AV campaign and helped put the UK Anti-Slavery Day into law. He tweets at @PeterBotting and you can find more of his work at www.peterbotting.co.uk

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