The Tories want to change how we elect England’s mayors. Does it matter?

Counting the votes at the 2012 London mayoral election. Image: Getty.

On a recent edition of Skylines, the entirely excellent CityMetric podcast, the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush made a prediction: that a future Conservative government may wish to rethink how England elects its various mayors.

At the moment, mayoral elections – as well as those for police & crime commissioners (PCC) – use the supplementary vote system. Voters choose first and second preferences; if no candidate gets 50 per cent, the top two candidates go to a run off, and everyone else’s votes are redistributed by second preferences. Stephen’s theory was that the Tories, concerned about the likelihood of their being anyone’s second preference, may prefer to stick to good old-fashioned first-past-the-post, which would enable them to win on 40 per cent of the vote.

And so it came to pass. From pages 41-2 of the new manifesto:

Our democratic institutions may be ancient but should not be neglected. We will continue to modernise and improve our electoral registration process, making it as accessible as possible so that every voice counts... We will retain the first past the post system of voting for parliamentary elections and extend this system to police and crime commissioner and mayoral elections.

The Tories are all but certain to win this June’s general election, with a pretty healthy majority, so we can assume that this is now government policy. So, to quote a good Salford lad – what difference does it make?

A bad day to be an independent mayoral candidate

Well, ostensibly, not a lot. Stephen’s theory for why the Tories might do this is probably the right one: UKIP is dying, so there are now definitively more left-leaning parties than right-leaning ones. As a result, it’s easier to imagine a Labour or LibDem candidate coming a close second in the first round but then winning the run-off, than it is to imagine a Tory doing the same.

Does this actually hold up in practice, though? So far, we’ve had five London mayoral elections. In every one, the candidate who won the first round also won the run-off. The same applies in all six of the metro mayoral elections held earlier this month, too.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, however – and in some of the smaller elections that have used supplementary vote, the second placed candidate did indeed go onto win. Labour’s former deputy prime minister John Prescott, for example, was leading the 2012 Humberside Police & Crime Commissioner election after the first round, but lost to a Tory on the second.

In all, according to data emanating from the New Statesman’s politics desk, there are eight such elections where the voting system came into play. Under first-past-the-post, Labour would have won three more PCCs and two mayoralties; the Tories would have won three more PCCs.

All these figures are net, as some see the big parties swapping among themselves. The big losers, though, were the independents. They’ve historically done pretty well in English mayoral elections: think Ken Livingstone in London in 2000, George Ferguson in Bristol in 2012 or H’Angus the Monkey (yes) in Hartlepool in 2002.

A graphic showing the history of England’s mayoralties, to 2016. Image: Matthew Smith.

The key example when considering the impact of the voting system, though, is rather less famous. Tony Egginton was elected as the independent mayor of Mansfield in 2002, coming a close second in the first round, but winning comfortably on transfers. In 2007, he won re-election pretty comfortably, coming first in the front round; Mansfield has had independent mayors ever since.

I’m not convinced this would have happened in a first-past-the-post system. It would have been much easier for the big parties to play the “independents can’t win here” card. Mansfield would have elected a Tory or (more likely) Labour mayor in 2002, and the independents would never have been a factor.

In other words, using first-past-the-post probably locks in the two-party system that seemed, for a while, to be on its last legs.

Imagine a London Assembly without Greens

There’s another elected body now facing a chance in its electoral system, where the losers are likely to be smaller parties. The London Assembly’s job is to scrutinise the mayor of London. Its elections have historically taken place under the Additional Member System, a form of proportional representation. Of its 25 members, 14 have geographical constituencies; another 11 “London-wide” members are chosen from party lists, in order to make the body more proportional.

Labour and the Tories have dominated the London Assembly – not surprising, as they also dominate the London electorate. But it’s generally had between four and nine members from smaller parties, all chosen under the top-up element.

Tory sources are now briefing that this too will be elected under first-past-the-post in future. If so, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine UKIP or the Greens winning seats again. The LibDems could plausibly carry one in London’s south west suburbs; more likely, though, they won’t. Future London Assemblies will almost certainly consist of one party which supports the mayor and another which opposes them – and that’s it.


The case for the defence

Does it matter? In terms of what it actually means day to day, probably not. Holding previous elections under first-past-the-post would have changed relatively few election results.

What’s more, there is a good reason for ditching supplementary vote: it’s a terrible system. It’s relatively hard to understand (I’ve written half a dozen articles about it by now, and still haven’t come up with a pithy way of explaining it in a sentence).

And if you want your second preference to count, you have to guess who will be in the second round. It’s likely that in the West of England earlier this month, there were a fair few second preference votes for Lib Dem Stephen Williams. It’s entirely plausible that, had he made the run-off, he could have been mayor. But he came third: those second preferences were never even counted.

So – there is an argument that first-past-the-post is just better.

Moreover, I’m not quite buying the idea that it’ll undermine the strength of the London Assembly, because – through no fault of its members, many of whom have done some truly excellent work – that body is pretty weak anyway.

Sure, in the past it’s tried very hard to hold the mayors to account – but the operative word there is “try”. London Assembly members published many compelling reports about the sloppiness of Boris Johnson’s administration. But did those reports translate into practical improvements? Would the world have been significantly worse if they’d never existed? I’m not convinced. The obvious contempt Johnson showed at his regular question times is not suggestive of a man who felt he was actually accountable to London Assembly.

The case for the prosecution

That said: this policy does, to put it mildly, smell a bit. Taken with other constitutional changes proposed by the manifesto – the decrease in the number of MPs, requiring voters to provide ID to prevent entirely fictional fraud, etc. – it looks like an attempt to increase the Tories’ chances of holding onto power.

So yes, it matters. At the very least, it benefits the big two at the expense of smaller parties. More than that, it fits with a general sense that Theresa May doesn’t really believe in the constitutional function of “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”.

As someone who writes about cities, I can’t bring myself to get worked up about this. As someone who has to live in this country, I think it stinks.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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