The local elections – and the significance of the mayoral 4-2 score lineBy Chris Game on 10 May 2017
As a PSA member in something called the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV), local elections present an annual dilemma. The day job involves emphasising to council officers, students and anyone else who’ll listen how these special days in the calendar represent the very heartbeat of local democracy, its lifeblood, or something equally vital. Which means the results really should be covered somehow in our institutional blog.
But how? INLOGOV is not a news service, many key counts are on the Friday, results are instantly available on social media, and anyone who is that interested will already have absorbed the pronouncements and projections of Curtice, Rallings and Thrasher over the weekend. Clearly, it has to be easy on the detail and give something extra. Which, as it happens, also fits the spec for a PSA readership, the majority of whom are – how to put this – less than riveted by the world of UK local government.
The first part of this blog, therefore, will give some of the major local government electoral headlines. That means changes in council control and councillor numbers, and, excluding one minor indulgence, no conjecturing whatever about implications for that other election.
Conservatives, obviously, were the massive winners, almost everywhere. Of seven English unitary councils contested, Labour retained control in Durham – as since 1919, though now with 22 fewer councillors – while Northumberland, thanks to the Conservative candidate in the potentially decisive ward literally picking the short straw, stays technically hung, though no longer under Labour minority control. But, with mass gains from particularly Independents, Conservatives are again largest party in Cornwall and back in control on the Isle of Wight.
Of the 27 non-metropolitan/shire counties, even before last Thursday Labour had majority control in only Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and shared minority control in Cumbria and Lancashire. Conservatives will now run the first and last of these and are easily largest party in the other two. Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and Warwickshire all swung from minority to majority Conservative control.
If you’ve a vague sense of déjà vu, you’re probably recalling 2009. Due to the Euros, those elections were in June, but ended similarly, with Labour losing every county council, and David Cameron dashing around proclaiming “We’ve won everywhere we possibly could have won”. Oh yes, and a Gordon Brown cabinet reshuffle, Europe minister Caroline Flint having decided that polling day was just the right moment for a flouncy resignation. Her replacement, as pub quizzers will know, was a Glenys Kinnock, and one Andy Burnham became Health minister, emphasising of course that the difference between the two Labour meltdowns was the little matter of the party then being in its 11th year of government.
In overall councillor numbers, Labour lost a net 382 councillors last week, UKIP 145, and the Liberal Democrats 42, while the Conservatives gained, for a party in national government, an almost mind-boggling 563; 319 in England, 164 in Scotland, far more than doubling their previous representation, and 80 in Wales – the latter, reckon more knowledgeable commentators than I, putting the party on course (in that other election) for its first nationwide Welsh victory since the Earl of Derby managed it in 1859.
And so to our first six metro mayors. These were surely last week’s most important elections for the immediate future of at least England’s sub-national government. They were also collectively way up there amongst the most mind-boggling results. Just try imagining the odds you could have got, even a week ago, on four of the six metro mayors being Conservative. However, it’s there in my table, in blue and pink. And, whatever one’s reservations about elected mayors and the whole limited, top-down, Treasury-driven, fiscally minimal devolution model, I’d suggest that nothing over the past 11 months has given it a greater boost.
For the first several months of her premiership, as I logged in these columns, Theresa May was almost visibly dithering over what to do about the agenda of devolution deals and elected city region mayors she’d inherited from the axed George Osborne and shuffled ex-Communities Secretary, Greg Clark. Then – and I simplify enormously here – two things happened.
First, Andy Street decided he’d stop being MD of the John Lewis Partnership and run as a Conservative for the biggest and politically most attractive metro mayoralty of all, the West Midlands – in time to be adopted, and then paraded with May at the party’s October Birmingham conference.
Meanwhile, something else helped change her instinctive view that one big reason why metro mayors were a bad idea – apart from it being George Osborne’s, backed by Cameron – was that most, if not all, would be Labour. Several of Clark’s nine envisaged metro-mayoral city regions, during the May-created devo-vacuum, started for various reasons to lose interest or patience and drop out – West Yorkshire, Sheffield City Region, the North East – and the political arithmetic began to alter. To the extent that I suggested she could realistically conceive of the first set of mayoral elections producing three Conservative and three Labour mayors. Even for the sake of an eye-catching headline, though, I’d never have contemplated 4-2.
And, as the table shows, three of the four results, after the two counts involved in the Supplementary Vote (SV) electoral system, were extremely close – Andy Burnham’s considerable personal victory in Greater Manchester being obviously an exception. Street’s majority was skeletal - 0.71979% of over half a million votes cast. This in itself would weaken any victor’s mandate, particularly when achieved in what, by the standards of anything other than Police and Crime Commissioner ballots, were very low-turnout elections.
The SV system was adopted for mayoral elections almost by accident, and plenty would argue that the more familiar Alternative Vote would be fitter for this particular purpose. Its defenders, though, claim it has worked well in London, is voter-friendly, produces clear winners, and is understood and accepted by all involved.
My table would suggest otherwise. In the West Midlands, in a hugely significant election decided by well under 4,000 votes, over 40,000 votes that might have contributed to the result didn’t do so. They were either not used at all, or were cast for candidates who, highly predictably in this instance, had already been eliminated after the first count.
It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that large numbers even of the small minority who turned out didn’t fully comprehend the system they were voting in – for which the Electoral Commission must be held chiefly responsible. As also for the huge disparities in candidate expenditure permitted before the ‘regulated’ campaign period, which again in such a closely run race, can and will be alleged to have been decisive. In short, the Commission, as well as the mayors themselves, have plenty of work in what is only a three-year term to 2020.
Chris Game is Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.
Image: The chamberlain files CC-BY-NC-ND