Ignore the polls: Zac Goldsmith could still be on course to become London mayor

Sadiq Khan tells journalists he's "quietly confident" of becoming the next London mayor. In reality this confidence is anything but quiet. In the wake of polls showing the Labour candidate up to ten points ahead, after second preferences, Khan has taken to speaking at hustings about what he'll do in his second and even third term as London mayor.

This confidence may well prove to be justified. Khan has a history of exceeding low expectations. Few expected him to marshall Ed Miliband to the leadership of the Labour party or to win his party's nomination for London mayor. It's possible he will similarly outperform expectations this year.

However, after Khan won Labour's nomination I spoke to senior figures in the London party who predicted that he wouldn't stand a chance against the charismatic and telegenic Zac Goldsmith. So far that has proven overly pessimistic, but there are reasons to believe Khan's growing confidence could be seriously misplaced. Because when you look beyond the headline poll numbers, it's clear the race could be far closer than the polls suggest.

One YouGov poll published last week found that Khan is seven points ahead of Goldsmith among all voters, with that lead extending to nine points once don't knows are excluded. On the face of it this seems fairly conclusive. However, there was another finding in the poll which could prove to be decisive in who enters City Hall in May.

When asked how "likely" voters were to vote for either candidate, YouGov found that in a hypothetical run-off between the two candidates, just 24% would "definitely" vote for the Labour candidate, while 23% would "definitely" vote for Goldsmith. While Khan may have a clear lead in the headline numbers, it appears his vote is significantly softer than his rival.

And when you take into account the fact that all opinion polls before the last general election significantly overstated Labour's position (polls showed Labour on average 15 points ahead in London, while in reality they were just 10 points ahead on the day) it's clear Khan's real lead could be much smaller than the polls suggest.

The Labour candidate's current lead also comes before the Tory campaign has got properly going. Goldsmith has yet to announce a single major policy and is still relatively unknown to the London public. That will soon change. Unlike his Labour opponent, the Conservative party has huge resources they can draw upon. The Evening Standard has reported that Goldsmith plans a "shock and awe" advertising campaign in the run-up to May 5th. The Labour party, for all their organisational strength in London, will not come close to matching it.

Even with two months to go, Goldsmith's campaign have already deployed huge numbers of targeted leaflets across London. These leaflets are being honed, not only to fit voters' local areas, but also to fit their religion and country of origin. As Politics.co.uk reported this week, Goldsmith's leaflets warning certain ethnic minorities that a vote for Khan would put their family heirlooms at risk were widely derided, with the Labour candidate describing them as "desperate". But whatever you think of the leaflets, there is absolutely nothing desperate about them. On the contrary, they are part of a long-planned campaign to scare certain groups of Londoners about the prospect of Khan becoming mayor.

And that fear could prove to be decisive. The Tory campaign, which has concentrated on constructing the false perception in voters' minds that Khan is somehow "linked" to Muslim extremists has been deliberately operated at arms-length from Goldsmith himself, with little overt reference to it in his campaign literature. But while it began with carefully-placed stories in sympathetic newspapers, it has since been publicly endorsed by senior Conservatives. Most explicit of all was the defence secretary Michael Fallon, who created a link in voters' minds between Khan and the threat of Paris-style terror attacks by Islamic extremists.

This strategy of trying to divide Londoners in order to win votes has been rightly condemned as seeking to stoke division and even Islamophobia among Londoners. The recent leaflets suggesting Khan is somehow anti-Indian is perhaps the most cynical example of this.

When two opinion polls came out this month showing the Labour candidate still ahead, some of his supporters suggested the stories had failed to influence Londoners. That confidence is almost certainly wrong. Because while such scare tactics may appall many Londoners, the lesson from last year's general election is that they can also be highly effective. The Tory poster campaign last year showing Ed Miliband in the pocket of Alex Salmond was widely ridiculed at the time, with polls suggesting it had little impact. In hindsight it was highly effective.

And that was just a campaign warning about the threat of a possible minority coalition with the SNP. The Tories' warning about possible links between the Labour candidate and Muslim extremists are potentially much more potent. Especially when one poll last year suggested that many London voters are not comfortable with the idea of a Muslim mayor. There are some problems with that poll, by the way, and Khan's campaign were right to be angered by it. But whatever they may think of the question asked, Labour shouldn't dismiss the answer it received. While the smear-by-association of Khan may be a despicable tactic, that doesn't mean it won't have any effect.

But the biggest reason to believe that Goldsmith's campaign could win in May is the fact that he is essentially fighting the same campaign successfully fought by Boris Johnson two times in a row.

'Sleeping beauty' versus 'the pugilist'?

Goldsmith's campaign is being run by Lynton Crosby's company, who also managed the Tories' last two London mayoral election campaigns. Crosby won both those elections by boosting Tory turnout in outer London while suppressing Labour turnout in inner London. Some have suggested recent demographic changes mean the so-called 'doughnut' may be "dead and buried". Certainly the most interesting finding in this month's Opinium poll was that Khan and Goldsmith are now neck-and-neck in the outer boroughs. In 2012 and 2008, Johnson was clearly ahead.

But these are still relatively early days and the Tory campaign will now concentrate almost entirely on boosting their vote in outer London. While their campaigns on issues like the green belt may seem irrelevant to most inner Londoners, they could have an effect in the outer boroughs. The painting of Khan as an extremist-by-association are also mainly targeted at these boroughs. While most Londoners may ignore flimsy stories about black flags and Khan's brother-in-law, older Daily Mail and Sun readers in Bexley and Bromley are likely to be much more receptive.

There are multiple reasons to dismiss all of this. Even if current opinion polls are unreliable, Labour's performance in the general election in London and the last local elections show that they are in a stronger position than they have been for decades. Everything else being equal, you would expect a Labour candidate to win. Goldsmith has also shown himself to be far from the impressive campaigner that Boris Johnson was against Ken Livingstone. The wider media narrative is also so far working in Khan's favour. Last week two profiles of the leading mayoral candidates came out on the same day. The profile of Khan in the New Statesman showed him in boxing gloves ready to knock out the Tory candidate. The profile of Goldsmith in the Evening Standard dubbed him as "sleeping beauty". Khan's campaign could not have asked for better framing. All of this combined means that bookies currently give Khan an almost 75% chance of winning.

In any other year this would all add up to a clear win for Khan. But these are turbulent times. And after last year's general election, there are very good reasons to believe Labour supporters could still be heading for another nasty surprise in May.