24 years ago the Greater London Authority Act gained royal assent

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 10th November 2023

This weekend (11th November) marks the 24th anniversary of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 gaining royal assent. The Greater London Authority, comprising the Mayor of London and the London Assembly, was first elected in March 2000, but the story of how it came about goes back to the demise of the Greater London Council in 1986 and the Greater London Authority Referendum held in Greater London on 7 May 1998.

The Birth of the Greater London Authority (GLA)

The establishment of the Greater London Authority was the culmination of years of political discourse and debate. The Thatcher government abolished the Greater London Council in 1986, leaving a void in London’s political landscape. The GLA was conceived as a solution to address this void, aiming to restore London’s regional government.

The Referendum of 1998

The critical moment in the GLA’s creation was the referendum held on May 7, 1998. The referendum was a defining event in London’s history, as it asked Londoners to not only if it wanted London-wide government, but to endorse the creation of a specific model of local government.

The question asked was: “Are you in favour of the Government’s proposals for a Greater London Authority, made up of an elected mayor and a separately elected assembly?”

The government’s proposals were for a London Assembly elected proportionally using the Additional Member System, and a directly elected mayor elected with the Supplementary Vote.

The benefits of the Supplementary Vote

The Supplementary Vote allows voters to express both a first and second preference for mayor. If no candidate received more than 50% of the first-preference votes, the second-preference votes for the remaining candidates would be counted to determine the winner.

The benefit of this is that it means the winner needs a wider base of support than they would with a crude First Past the Post vote. Under First Past the Post, the amount of votes needed to win goes down as more candidates stand – MPs have been elected on under a quarter of the vote. But unlike MPs, Mayors have a large budget to distribute. There will always be an incentive to simply spend the budget on the part of the city that votes for the Mayor, to ensure their re-election.

This need for broader levels of support helps to ensure accountability when it comes to mayoral decisions. Mayors need to be more responsive to the needs and concerns of different groups within the city, as they know that all voters could be decisive when it comes to their re-election.

The Supplementary Vote is also relatively simple to understand. Like First Past the Post and the Additional Member System, voters use Xs to mark the ballot paper, reducing the risk of confusion between systems that use numbers and those that use Xs. Likewise, as long as they can predict which candidates will likely reach the top two, they don’t need to vote tactically as they would under First Past the Post. By allowing voters to indicate a second preference, the system helps mitigate the potential for a “spoiler” candidate to split the vote on the left or right.

A massive majority in London backs the proposals

Not to spoil the ending, but London backed the proposal for a Mayor elected via the Supplementary vote – with 72% voting in favour. The Greater London Authority was duly set up, with Ken Livingston serving as the first Mayor.

London backed the proposal for a Mayor elected via the Supplementary vote – with 72% voting in favour

The system wasn’t perfect, using the Alternative Vote for Mayor would have meant voters could have ranked all the candidates, not just the top two. This would have made it easier for voters would wouldn’t have had to guess who would be in the top two. Likewise, the London Assembly could have been elected with the Single Transferable Vote, allowing every assembly member to be elected on their individual merits, rather than having constituency and list assembly members. But nobody was calling for it to be made worse. That is until the Elections Act 2022 came along.

The government sneak through a unilateral change in the rules

A major change to the voting system for Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners was slipped into the Elections Bill at Committee Stage – after MPs and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) scrutinised the rest of the bill.

The clauses, which were revealed exclusively in the Telegraph rather than to parliament, imposed First Past the Post on all Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners.

Most of this bill received no pre-legislative scrutiny anyway. There was no formal public consultation on the bill as a whole, and ministers ignored the Committee on Standards in Public Life report and the principle that governments should consult on big constitutional changes.

It’s clear that the plans wouldn’t have stood up to scrutiny, so the government simply didn’t do any.

A system which was ushered in on a massive wave of public support was removed with barely an attempt to defend the change. First Past the Post in general elections gives the government the power to change the rules of elections as they see fit, and for any reason they want.

We shouldn’t use First Past the Post for Mayors, and we shouldn’t use it for Parliament either.

First Past the Post should have no place in our Town Halls

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