Civic enthusiasm or population change: why was the turnout in London’s mayoral election so high?

Some ballot boxes. In London. Image: Getty.

Alongside the result itself and controversies surrounding the campaign, one of the biggest stories of the London Mayoral election was its remarkable turnout.

Despite predictions of low turnout in polls, 46 per cent of the electorate cast a vote in 2016, up from 38 per cent in 2012. The 2016 turnout is the highest recorded since London was granted the right to elect a mayor in 2000, slightly over the 45 per cent mark when Boris Johnson first ran in 2008.

Commentators have put forward a range of explanations for this unexpected surge in democratic activity: the appeal of a guaranteed new mayor, an emotional reaction to the main candidates’ campaigns, or as a sign that the mayoral institution is growing in significance.

Others, however, have suggested that the increase in turnout reflected electoral roll shrinkage, as a result of the new voter registration system introduced in 2014. Voters now need to register individually, rather than being registered by the household. Young people, as renters, were predicted to lose out in the transition.

Was the increase in turnout a mark of renewed civic enthusiasm? Was it the effect of London’s rapid population change? Or was it the direct consequence of having fewer voters on the register?

The truth is: it was a mixture of the three.

Population change

The background to the election, like so many things in London, is the city’s growth. London’s population is growing, and changing as it grows, which could explain why Londoners are more likely to cast a vote.

The capital is gradually becoming home to a greater proportion of higher-skilled people, who are more likely to vote. London has also gained 350,000 people in voting age between 2012 and 2016. (We use adult population as a proxy for the number of people who have the right to vote in the London.)

Population increased most rapidly in the East End – where it grew by a striking 10 per cent in just four years – but more slowly in west London boroughs. (Figures are for the mayoral election and boroughs are grouped together by London Assembly constituency.)

Electoral register

The adult population has grown by 350,000 – yet the electorate has shrunk. Indeed, the electoral register in May 2016 had 60,000 fewer people than in 2012. The registration rate dropped from 90 to 84 per cent of the adult population.

This drop in registration may be attributed to the new registration system. This requires individuals to take action. With fewer people registered by default, you would expect the smaller electorate to be more likely to turn out on polling day. 

The drop in the electorate was most dramatic in the West End. This area has seen most growth in international buyers of prime London real estate, who may not be able to vote or may not even live in the capital. The Guardian recently reported that 184 of the 214 apartments in St George’s Wharf in Vauxhall had no person registered to vote.

*May 2012 data for Croydon and Sutton and Bexley was wrong – for these two constituencies December 2012 data was used instead.

Votes cast

But turnout also increased because more people voted in 2016 than in 2012, or even in 2008, despite having fewer voters on the electoral roll. The number of people who turned up to their polling station went down from 2.4m in 2008 to 2.2m in 2012, then up again to 2.6m in 2016.

As the table below shows, the number of people who voted increased most in East London, which has gained a lot of residents. There were also large increases in the two frontrunners’ constituencies, South West London and Merton & Wandsworth; and in the boroughs neighbouring Heathrow Airport, where runway expansion may have galvanised residents.

Here’s those figures again, this time as a share of the total adult population.

This 18 per cent increase in the number of people who voted means that turnout of the voting age population – Including those Londoners who did not register – grew from 35 per cent to near 40 per cent, a similar level to 2008.

This is mixed news for the advocates of elected Mayors. Turnout of the voting age population did come up in the 2016 London election – but just to bounce back to its 2008 level. More people voted than in previous elections, but the growth in the electorate could have been even higher if registrations had kept up with population growth.

With the EU referendum round the corner, London’s mayoral elections have perhaps helped make sure that the capital will turn out to vote. But a growing population with a shrinking electoral roll is not a healthy sign.

Nicolas Bosetti is a research intern at the Centre for London. He tweets as @nicolasbosetti.

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.

He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.