Change to London mayoral elections complicates thinking for independent candidates

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 5th February 2024

Over the weekend The Sun reported on rumours that Paul Scully MP, the former Conservative Minister for London, was considering running as an independent candidate for London mayor. We can’t comment on whether these Tory sources are accurate, but in principle, is it a good idea to run as an independent?

Mayors used to be elected with the Supplementary Vote

Back in 2019 we wrote about Rory Stewart’s planned run as an independent for London Mayor. He eventually dropped out of the race, but we came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a risk of Rory Stewart splitting the conservative vote. That’s because Mayors used to be elected via the Supplementary Vote.

With the Supplementary Vote, you mark down your first and second choice for Mayor. If no candidate gets over 50% of the vote, the top two candidates continue to a run-off and all other candidates are eliminated. If your favourite candidate gets through, your vote is counted for them in the run-off. If they didn’t, but your second choice did, your vote goes to them. The run-off candidate with the most votes is declared the winner.

Unlike MPs, Mayors have control over a large budget. Offering voters a backup choice using the Supplementary Vote acts as a safeguard against mayors sneaking into city and town halls on low levels of support by ensuring the winning candidate has a broad backing of voters – vital for officials with wide-ranging powers over policing and crime in our local communities.

That’s why it wasn’t a problem for Rory Stewart to run as an independent. Conservative voters could put Rory and the official Conservative candidate, Shaun Bailey, as first and second according to their preference without worrying about splitting the vote.

The government changed the way we elect our Mayors

But that’s not how it works now. The government used the Elections Act 2022 to change the way we elect our mayors so that we have to use First Past the Post. First Past the Post removes the need for a candidate to win broad support to become the mayor, instead they can now win on any level of support.

We’ve seen MPs elected on less than a quarter of the vote (Belfast South, 2015). How could a mayor represent all of their city, if they were only elected by one small part of it?

There’s now a risk of splitting the vote

If the majority of Londoners are left wing, they should have a left-wing mayor implementing left-wing policies. If the majority of Londoners are right wing, they should get a right-wing mayor implementing right-wing policies. It’s a pretty basic requirement of a democracy that the majority of  voters get the government they want. But with First Past the Post, there is a real risk that that won’t happen.

Imagine a simplified scenario where an independent conservative wins 25% of the vote, while the Conservative’s official candidate wins 35% and Labour’s candidate wins 40%, so is elected as mayor. In this scenario, even though 60% of people voted for conservative candidates, London gets a Labour mayor.

Of course, in the real world there will be Liberal Democrat and Green Party candidates, along with minor independents to complicate things – but the example still stands. The way we choose our leaders should facilitate us getting the policies we want, not stand in our way.

Voting should be about representing us

Many politicians look at elections as a personal popularity contest with them as the focus. But elections are about more than politicians and their egos, it’s how we control our government and ensure they act in our interests. First Past the Post makes elections all about politicians, not voters.

Should Paul Scully run for Mayor as an Independent? That’s up to him to decide. But what we can say is that he shouldn’t have to worry about how the system works in his deliberation. We should have an electoral system that works for voters, not one voters have to work around.

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First Past the Post has no place in our town halls

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