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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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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