On Thursday 7 May, many of England’s biggest cities – London, Birmingham, Manchester – were due to hold mayoral elections. Liverpool, just to show off, was planning to hold two.
That’s not happening now. On Thursday 12 March the UK's Electoral Commission recommended that the government delay the elections, to protect voters, campaigners and election officials from the growing Covid-19 pandemic. The following day, the government agreed.
That decision, which was taken even before the UK went into lockdown, won’t just affect the mayoral elections, but a huge number of other local elections across England – mostly, though not exclusively, in urban areas.
So – what happens now? Here are some of the big questions, along with, best we can tell, the answers.
What was up for election?
The highest profile election originally scheduled for May was London’s sixth mayoral election. Candidates were set to include Tory Shaun Bailey; the Liberal Democrat Siobhan Benita; Green party co-leader Sian Berry; and the independent former Tory MP Rory Stewart. But Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan has consistently maintained a strong poll lead, and most observers expected him to win a second term handily.
Four other metro mayors – that is, mayors who run a combined authority, rather than leading a single council – were also facing re-election. The relevant authorities, and their incumbents, are:
Greater Manchester – Andy Burnham (Labour);
West Midlands – Andy Street (Tory);
Liverpool City Region – Steve Rotheram (Labour);
Tees Valley – Ben Houchen (Tory).
All of these were up for a second term after just three years, rather than the normal four, so as to align the relatively new posts with other local elections in the hope of improving turnout. (The two other metro mayors first elected in 2017 – in the West of England, and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – were not due to face re-election until next year.)
One odd side effect of this is that it meant that the Liverpool City Region was to elect its metro mayor (who runs infrastructure and economic policy across six boroughs) on the same day as Liverpool City Council was to elect its own mayor (who runs the council of just one, albeit the biggest and most central). To add to the absurdity, neither post is in any way competitive: both Rotheram and incumbent Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson, who has held the job for Labour since 2012, were almost certain to be re-elected.
Several other directly elected mayors – in Bristol, Doncaster, North Tyneside and Salford – were also up for election in May. And so were a vast number of council seats, across the former metropolitan counties of the Midlands and the north, and in a sprinking of councils outside them, too. Here’s a map:
The councils up for election. Image: Maswimelleu/Wikimedia Commons.
When will those elections be held now?
Assuming that the pandemic has abated enough for elections to take place – probable but far from certain – the expectation is they’ll take place instead on Thursday 6 May 2021.
That’ll make it a bumper day for local democracy in Britain, because council elections covering huge swathes of England, Scotland and Wales were already due to take place. Elections for the metro mayoralties in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, the West of England, and a new one in West Yorkshire – signed off by national government on 12 March – are also up the same day.
Does this have a knock-on effect on the timetable of other elections?
Right now, nobody actually seems to know. The elections originally scheduled for 2021 are generally expected to take place as planned. But whether the ones delayed from 2020 to 2021 will be repeated in 2024, or pushed permanently to a new cycle which sees them repeat in 2025, is a matter on which there is currently no consensus. The government, busy as it is dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, has either not given the matter much thought, or not made its position clear if it has.
So can parties change their candidates?
Candidacies will not be formally registered with the election authorities until a few weeks before the elections. That means there’s no legal bar to candidates dropping out (nor, for that matter, being pushed aside by parties who think they’ve found someone better).
Are there any other consequences?
Yes, it turns out that if you delay an entire election cycle because of a global pandemic, there are in fact some other consequences.
A relatively minor one is that Liverpool, which had always faced the absurdity of two simultaneous mayoral elections, will be joined in this by Bristol. Mavin Rees, Labour’s directly elected mayor of the city council, was due to face re-election this year. Tim Bowles, the Tory metro mayor of the West of England Combined Authority (basically, Bristol, Bath and some of their suburbs), was to face the voters next year. Now those elections will both happen on the same day.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit think tank, says that although “the delay was absolutely the right decision,” it does create a number of other problems. Some councillors who had intended to step down next month will now find they’re expected to stay in post, he notes. That may be fine for many, but others will have been intending to move, or to take up new jobs. The law of large numbers means that not all will change their plans: some will still step down. “So what happens to that seat? Do you leave it vacant? Do you co-opt someone? We just don’t know,” says Carr-West.
He also argues that a “democratic deficit” will be created where areas end up governed by particular people for longer than they expected. “If we believe in local democracy, if we believe that it matters that decisions are made by people who are elected to lead local places, then it matters that these terms have been extended by a year,” he says.
What about the local government reform agenda?
The pandemic as a whole, if not the delayed elections, pose a bigger problem of local government in England. The sector has been waiting on a number of major reforms – to funding, social care, its powers, even possibly a radical, twice-a-century reorganisation of council boundaries. These have been repeatedly delayed, thanks to Brexit and a series of national elections. But with Brexit finally happening and the governing party having won a decent majority at Westminster for the first time in a decade, many in the sector hoped things would move on at last.
The problems those reforms were intended to solve, and which have already seen one county council, Northamptonshire, go bust, have not gone away. But with the entire planet in crisis, it doesn’t seem likely national government will be addressing them any time soon.