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.