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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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