The official results show what Friday's papers were predicting: Conservative Boris Johnson has unseated Labor Mayor Ken Livingstone in London. In the multiparty election, Johnson led in first-choice votes 43 percent to 37 percent. Under the rules, the second-choice votes of those who did not vote for either of the first two candidates are added to their totals. This slightly reduced Johnson's margin: Expressed as a percentage of total first- and second-choice votes for the top two candidates, Johnson won 53 percent to 47 percent. By way of comparison, Livingstone led Conservative Steven Norris by 36 percent to 28 percent in first-choice votes in 2004. This map shows the results in each of London's 14 assembly districts. Conservatives elected Assembly members in eight districts, Labor in six.
Regionally, there are some interesting patterns; I'll give Johnson's percentage of the two-candidate first- and second-choice votes in each. Livingston's strongest areas were City and East (37 percent), Southwark and Lambeth (37 percent), and North East (38 percent). These contain many of the historical slums and public housing estates of London. There's been some gentrification in the City and East, between the City and the Docklands, as financial services professionals upgrade old houses or move into spanking-new flats near their places of work. But there are also a lot of Muslim immigrants in some of these areas. The only other district in which Livingstone won an appreciable majority was Greenwich and Lewisham (44 percent), which is mostly low income.
Johnson's strongest assembly districts were Bexley and Bromley (72 percent), affluent but not especially fashionable southeast suburbs; Havering and Redbridge (63 percent), northeastern suburbs where hard-line Tories like former party leader Iain Duncan Smith hold safe parliamentary seats; West Central (62 percent), which includes most of central London, including Westminster, Mayfair, Kensington, Chelsea, and Hammersmith, and which is where you find most of London's richest and most aristocratic residents; and Croydon and Sutton (61 percent), affluent southern suburbs. Johnson also did respectably in South West (58 percent), where locals have been electing Liberal Democrats to parliamentary seats.
Johnson's core constituencies seem to me more diverse than Livingstone's. The Labor base is the shrinking white working class, often on public housing estates, and the growing number of immigrants, many of them Muslims, and Livingstone has shown some skill in holding together these sometimes antagonistic groups. Johnson has managed to unite the toffs of Kensington and Chelsea with the estuary English and anything-but-fashionable hard-liners of the northeast suburbs. He has also made great inroads among those high-income, high-minded folk who have been voting Liberal Democrat for Parliament and many local offices.
There is much talk in the British press that this result, and the Conservatives' thumping success in other local elections May 1, means political disaster for Labor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the next general election, which must be held by May 2010. Typically in Britain, prime ministers call elections a year before they are required to, and waiting till the fifth year is seen, usually correctly, as a sign of great weakness (and it also entitles opposition shadow cabinet members to briefings by civil servants in the final year of the Parliament). My Creators Syndicate column last October 15 discusses this. Yet it's generally assumed that Brown, having reversed himself abruptly by not calling a general election last fall, won't call one till 2010.
I think it's too soon to say that Brown and Labor can't recover by then. British political opinion, having been solidly behind New Labor from 1992 until 2006, seems to have returned to the much greater volatility one saw in the polls from the early 1960s, when I first began follwing them, until 1992. But I do think there's something significant in the coalition assembled by Boris Johnson, who, like national Conservative Party leader David Cameron, is a graduate of Eton and Oxford (Balliol in Johnson's case, Brasenose in Cameron's): He's attracting erstwhile Liberal Democratic voters to the Conservative brand. In the 1997 and 2001 elections, there was massive tactical voting, all directed against the Conservatives: You could see it in election returns where almost no one in some districts voted Labor and almost no one in a next-door district voted Liberal Democrat, with the Liberal Democrats beating the Conservatives in the first and Labor beating them in the second. In 2005, tactical voting became more diverse: You saw university constituencies where there was tactical voting (presumably because of Tony Blair's support of the Iraq war) against Labor. Now it seems that in a straight-out Conservative-Labor race (the Liberal candidate got only 9 percent of the first-choice votes), many of the relatively upscale Londoners who have been voting Lib Dem plumped for the Conservative. That's a significant change in London politics and, if it happens nationally, one that could help give the Conservatives a working majority in Parliament in 2010.
By Michael Barone