If Labour’s candidate for London mayor backs building the Silvertown Tunnel, he or she could lose nearly half of their vital second-preference votes if the Green Party carries out a threat to withdraw support over the issue.
The damage could be even worse if the Liberal Democrats follow suit and also call for a boycott over building new roads across the River Thames – potentially scuppering Labour’s bid to win City Hall for only the second time in 16 years.
Until now, most Labour mayoral candidates have been treating the Silvertown Tunnel as merely a local issue.
But the possibility of losing to environmentally-minded Tory Zac Goldsmith may start to concentrate their minds on the £1bn scheme to build a new road tunnel from the Royal Docks to Greenwich Peninsula, feeding into the crowded A102, piling extra HGVs and other traffic onto local roads on both sides of the Thames.
In the two most recent elections, the Greens asked their supporters to give Labour’s Ken Livingstone their second preference votes.
But 2012’s mayoral candidate Jenny Jones has long warned Labour it won’t get the same co-operation if it continues with Boris Johnson’s plans to build the Silvertown Tunnel and two other crossings at Thamesmead and Belvedere. Tom Chance, the party’s housing spokesperson who is hoping for the Green nomination this time around, has repeated the threat.
Now Zac Goldsmith – Richmond Park MP and former owner and editor of The Ecologist – is planning to stand, there will be increasing pressure on Labour candidates to put environmental considerations at the heart of their manifestos.
Jones has already said many Green supporters will be tempted to back Goldsmith, who yesterday told a parliamentary debate on London air pollution that “we cannot invent new roads”.
So far, only Christian Wolmar – a transport journalist who was the first to declare for the Labour candidacy – has called for the Silvertown Tunnel to be cancelled. He spoke at a No to Silvertown Tunnel meeting earlier this year.
Other candidates set to go on the ballot paper include party leadership favourite Sadiq Khan, Hackney North MP Diane Abbott, Tottenham MP David Lammy and Harrow West MP Gareth Thomas. Londoners who sign up as Labour supporters and pay £3 can have a vote in the process.
Voters choose London mayors by picking a first and second preference, a system designed to give outsider candidates some influence in the race.
If a candidate does not win more than 50% of first preference votes, then second preferences are used to decide a winner – which has happened in all four elections since the post was created in 2000.
In 2012, Ken Livingstone got 889,918 first preference votes against Boris Johnson’s 971,931.
He then had 102,355 second-choice votes from voters who backed the other five candidates. While this was not enough to topple Johnson, who got 82,880 second-preferences, it brought the Labour veteran just over 60,000 votes from victory.
Livingstone had 46,241 second-choice votes from Green backers – votes which now could be denied to a future Labour candidate if she or he goes ahead with the road schemes.
He also picked up 24,465 second-preference votes from supporters of Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick. Caroline Pidgeon, the London Assembly member most often linked with a Liberal Democrat run for the mayoralty, is also an opponent of new road crossings.
If 2016’s poll is as close as 2012’s, these votes could be enough to decide who wins the mayoralty.
London politicians’ reluctance to recognise road-building adversely effects air quality – as demonstrated by this paper on the widening of the A206 in Crayford – was highlighted in yesterday’s parliamentary debate, led by Diane Abbott.
It also showed the lack of understanding that many politicians have of the river crossings issue – which risks the Silvertown Tunnel slipping into being, hidden by the controversies over other crossings.
New Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matthew Pennycook was the only member to bring up the topic of “strategic river crossings”, when intervening in a summing-up by Tory minister Rory Stewart.
But Stewart replied by referring to “the construction of a new bridge” – when the only “strategic” crossing currently being planned is the tunnel at Silvertown, which TfL plans to run a “final” consultation on this autumn. (Gallions and Belvedere have been called “local bridges for local people” by Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland.)
If campaigners and politicians want to address the crossings issue, they will need to think about dealing with each one individually rather than treating them as a group.