by Professor Tony Travers
The first key election for London will be the mayoral vote on 2 May.
Labour’s Sadiq Khan is running for a third term. His Conservative rival, Susan Hall, has an uphill struggle, given her party’s recent opinion poll performance. Policy battles will centre on crime, housing, transport and planning. As far as business is concerned, the Conservatives’ recent attacks on Khan’s record relating to ULEZ, Transport for London’s (TfL) finances and housing delivery show where they will be pitching their arguments against the incumbent.
In reality, TfL’s performance is generally better than the government’s management of the national railway and the delayed, over-budget, HS2 project. The future of HS2 at Euston is still undecided, which creates doubts about regeneration at Old Oak Common. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove’s recently revised housing policy includes a threat to take over parts of the mayor’s London Plan to achieve greater Whitehall control over housing numbers in the capital. The stated purpose is to deliver substantial increases in construction on ‘brownfield’ land and east London areas to protect suburban boroughs and the Green Belt.
Assuming Rishi Sunak does not call a spring election, the second set of polls with profound implications for the UK and its businesses will be the European Parliamentary elections on 6-9 June. Populist parties are expected to make big gains, which will alarm national governments in many of the 27-member bloc, but particularly France and Germany. Victor Orban’s populism in Hungary and Geert Wilders’s recent success in the Netherlands attest to shifts in public opinion. The risk for business in Britain is that the EU and its member governments will become more protectionist, increasingly insular on defence policy, and less likely to trade with the UK.
Next, and least predictable date-wise, is expected to be the UK general election, though the Chancellor’s decision to hold the Budget on 6 March has been seen as increasing the chances of an earlier poll. This contest is probably still most likely to occur in the autumn. It could, of course, then come either before or after the US presidential vote on 5 November. The Conservatives have been trailing in opinion polls for many months and show few signs of revival. Labour, out of power since 2010, are taking great care not to appear radical.
GDP and productivity growth are likely to be key manifesto battlegrounds. However, the intractable nature of the UK’s (and Europe’s) dismal economic recovery from the cumulative shocks delivered by the 2008 banking crisis, Brexit, the pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war and now conflict in the Middle East suggest that the major parties’ policy makers have few ideas (beyond boosterism) about what to propose for the next five years. Promises of future tax cuts are inevitable.
The US presidential election has the potential to be the most impactful of the four outlined here. The possibility that Donald Trump may return to the White House, which is self-evidently a real one, could affect economic and trade policy, the US’s approach to NATO and much more besides. Europe may find itself with a far less reliable American ally, with consequences for the EU/UK relationship.
Other contests
There are also electoral contests in other countries, notably Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ghana, Mexico, Rwanda, South Africa and Venezuela which have the potential to influence policy, notably in relation to trade, in the UK. Elsewhere in England, mayoral contests take place in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and six other combined authorities.
In short, 2024 will be a year of significant electoral uncertainty and possible change. For businesses in London and across the UK, the policy stakes will be high.
Tony Travers is a visiting professor in the London School of Economics department of government, and director of LSE London