London Mayoral Elections: Towards the end

With one week to go before London elects its mayor, Sunday Times political editor David Cracknell explores which of the three front-running candidates is getting their campaign message across most effectively.

The fact that six London football clubs are now in the Premier League has probably made more headlines in recent days than the London mayoral elections. Even political aficionados admit that it has been an uphill struggle this time to get anyone the slightest bit interested in the campaign for London mayor.

So far, only when things have turned a bit dirty has there been much of an eyebrow raised by the Westminster village, let alone the general public. Simon Hughes's association in a leaflet of Steven Norris with Jarvis and the Potters Bar rail crash stooped to new lows of negative campaigning; but it received full marks at least for getting headlines.

And both Ken Livingstone and Norris appeared to raise the prospect of a smoking ban in the capital, to kick start wider interest in the campaign.

But, then, who can deny how hard it has been to get the message across.

The three main candidates are competing on a 'super Thursday' poll of local and European elections. The launch of their campaigns has coincided with disgruntlement with Tony Blair's government and the flaring up of problems in Iraq. Not like 2000, when we had all the fun of the Ken circus, the rebel cut adrift from Blairite Labour, promising to be as radical and troublesome as he was in the days of the GLC. But he turned out to be rather sensible - and popular - and it wasn't long before he was invited back into the fold.

The main mayoral camps are gloomy about the lack of coverage, but hope that in the last week of the campaign they can galvanise the interest of the public. Media analysis from early in the campaign backs up their instincts. According to a survey by TNS Media Intelligence in the first week of the campaign, transport issues have received the most coverage across broadcasters and the press, consisting of 33 per cent of opportunities with crime coming second with 20 per cent.

All the camps are bound by the relatively small amount they are allowed to spend on their campaigns - just £420,000. But it is Livingstone who has received the most exposure with 76 mentions out of 108 reports, with just over half in the national press. Norris got 31 mentions, while Hughes received the least mentions, being name-checked only 24 times.

At the time of writing, there is a touch of gloom in the Livingstone campaign on several fronts. 'This campaign is waiting to take off,' says one Ken aide. 'The trouble is that most voters probably think that Ken is a shoo-in, which is dangerous for us, and there is an issue about turn-out on the back of it.'

Livingstone, they acknowledge, is in a difficult position. Many voters feel they may want to kick Blair over the war in Iraq, and the mayor, with his pronouncements against Bush, could have capitalised on that if he was still an independent candidate like last time. But he no longer is.

The polls seem to bear this out and have shown that the mayor's lead has been cut in half since he was officially readmitted back into the party. Last month a YouGov survey put Livingstone on 40 per cent, Norris on 31 per cent and Hughes trailing on 17 per cent. But, in December, Livingstone was riding much higher on 44 per cent, his Tory rival on 26 per cent and the Lib Dems on 20 per cent.

Livingstone has also gone down the route of writing a clever article seeking to shore up his credentials over Iraq in The Guardian. It ran under the headline 'We must withdraw' and repeated his subtle anti-US message in a way that would be unthinkable for the Blairites. Perhaps a few points were scored there.

The message of the Norris campaign has been unashamedly single: crime.

Says a close adviser: 'With limited resources, we are aiming to make this a referendum on crime in London. It's as simple as that. We are going to stick religiously to that message.'

Norris's campaign team is concentrating on the suburbs, and recently took a tactical decision to target outer London boroughs such as Richmond, Sutton and Kingston. His aides admit that this is where the Tory voters are, but critics say this will only shore up his vote, not increase it. The team also recognises the importance of broadcasting. The Evening Standard has a particular commuting audience, but programmes such as London Tonight, with an audience of one million, are extremely important.

Norris's campaign director Mark MacGregor believes that Livingstone has now switched his emphasis from transport to crime because of their efforts: 'The opening exchanges of the campaign have been very much in our favour and on our territory. The election campaign is clearly to be about crime now.'

Hughes presses on with his 'man of the people' approach, getting round and about and publishing his quirky diary on the internet. His slogan is 'London United' and, again, crime and quirky ideas such as cutting Tube fares for early birds feature prominently.

Hughes had been concentrating on targeting the local papers until about three weeks ago, according to a Liberal Democrat press campaign spokesperson.

Guerrilla marketing techniques have also formed a key part of the communications tactic, from virals to double decker buses to doing 'anti-graffiti work'.

He has a good chance, however, of soaking up second preferences under the special electoral system that exists in London.

In the end, the numbers are important and second preferences particularly could see a few surprises. Even if Livingstone gets a second term, his own supporters know that Labour must win the magic nine seats out of 25 to be sure of getting his budget through.

Jeremy Fraser, a former Labour adviser and head of PA at Four Communications, believes the only way Hughes or Norris stand a chance of unseating Ken is to club together: 'Norris seems to be just concentrating on the suburbs where the Tory votes are and that is just shoring up his vote, not making inroads. He could only knock Livingstone off first position if he gets Lib Dems to vote for him as their second choice and Hughes gets his supporters to back Norris as their second choice.'

So, while London may have six Premier football teams, it seems there will continue to be only one mayor - Mr Livingstone, we presume?

KEN LIVINGSTONE - LABOUR

Key campaign objectives

- To emphasise the success of Ken Livingstone's policies on crime and transport over the past four years and to remind Londoners how much he has achieved

- To highlight the Labour Party's aspirations for London

- To stress the dividing line between Livingstone and the other leading candidates

Strategy

- The transport policy press conference took place on top of a double-decker bus to provide journalists with a colourful angle

- Visits to schools were publicised to highlight Labour's proposal to allow children in full-time education free travel on London's public transport

- Regional broadcast and print media were given the opportunity to meet residents who had benefited from Livingstone's 'Safer Neighbourhoods' scheme

- To attract young voters, Livingstone gave an interview to the London Student Magazine

- To attract pensioners, Livingstone attended a hustings meeting organised by Age Concern

- Ethnic and gay media were targeted with information about how his policies have affected them and what Labour proposes to do next

- A widespread billboard and advertising campaign was conducted

SIMON HUGHES - LIB DEMS

Key campaign objectives

- To highlight that the Liberal Democrat party is the only one that has consistently opposed the Iraq war and that Livingstone, despite his anti-war stance, is Blair's mayor

- To promote the Lib Dems as the party that will reduce and tackle crime and terrorism

- To engage young voters

Strategy

- A publicity stunt to demonstrate the party is anti-graffiti

- Information about the party's policy initiatives was sent to London-selling sympathetic national broadsheets and local consumer specialist press, including housing, rail, ethnic and gay titles

- Diary sections of national tabloids were targeted

- Details of Hughes's 113 visits to 33 boroughs were publicised

- To attract pensioners, the party's stance on council tax and free long-term care for the elderly was promoted

- To attract young voters, the team publicised a text number for supporters to send their ideas in

STEVEN NORRIS - CONSERVATIVES

Key campaign objectives

- To make crime the number one agenda in the London election

- To encourage dissatisfied Londoners to vote

- To demonstrate Steven Norris's experience running large organisations like London

- To ensure Londoners see the elections as a 'two-horse race'

Strategy

- Letters were sent to broadsheets in response to topical issues in the press, particularly with reference to crime

- Photo opportunities were set up to accompany policy initiatives

- Press conferences attended by party leader Michael Howard were held to launch the Conservative Party's crime, transport, business, economic and tourism policies

- London-based national and regional broadcast media were offered live interviews with Norris

- To appeal to non-traditional Tory voters publications such as Time Out, the Mail on Sunday's Night & Day and the Pink Paper, were targeted as well as The Guardian

- Local London press were given one-on-one interviews with Norris

- Around £250,000 was spent on posters, billboards and newspaper ads.

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