First Past the Post in mayoral elections means less choice and a weaker voice

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 2nd November 2023

This week, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has said he is facing his ‘toughest election yet’ but why is that? When Labour have a national polling majority of somewhere in the region of 20 points most days surely Khan should be tentatively already celebrating? 

The government changed the rules

Well, ever since the creation of the role, Mayors have been elected using the ‘Supplementary Vote’ system. The Supplementary Vote lets voters choose a second choice as a backup candidate. If your favourite candidate doesn’t get through to the top two, your vote moves to your back-up, giving more voters a say in the final winner. 

Candidates under this system knew that to win, they needed to get at least the support of around half of Londoners.

Sadly, this was changed in 2022 when the Government snuck in a clause to impose First Past the Post on Mayoral elections in the Elections Act 2022. The change didn’t receive much attention given the much more seismic change to how we vote that the Elections Act introduced, Voter ID. 

This week, Sadiq Khan has said that the combination of both the new voter ID requirements and the introduction of First Past the Post is a “cynical attempt to make it harder for people to vote”. Mr Khan estimates more than 900,000 London voters could be locked out of the process as a result of the new measures. 

Do you think that First Past the Post should have no place in our Town Halls? Add your name to our call.

Add your name to our call

First Past the Post will make it harder for voters

Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government raised the risk to Independent candidates, saying: “The 2024 London mayoral election could have been an opportunity for an independent… Supplementary Vote meant that voters could take a chance on an outside candidate without worrying that their vote would be ‘wasted’.” She highlights the risk that introducing First Past the Post into Mayoral elections could jeopardise the democratic principles of a Mayor because of how the system works.

Unlike MPs, Mayors are executive positions with budgets to spend. The Supplementary Vote ensured they had broad support, but First Past the Post will mean we could see a mayor elected on a small share of the vote. 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? 

In a city with a hugely diverse population of almost nine million, preventing that diversity of opinion from finding a compromise and middle ground via their vote is wholly undemocratic. 

First Past the Post will encourage candidates to just focus on their base, as candidates realise they no longer need to win broad support, all they must do now is play to their core voters and make sure they come out to vote. Political debate becomes weaker as a result. If politicians and candidates don’t have to engage with alternate opinions and find a way to meet them in the middle somewhere, they won’t. 

Voters will know that they will need to vote for one of the major party candidates to be sure of having a say in the final decision. Imposing First Past the Post will see the dominance of the two major parties solidified and as a result, the level of debate goes down, policies become skewed to a small proportion of the electorate, and life gets more unequal. 

Voter ID is a barrier to voting

Secondly, for the first time, voters in London will be required to produce photo ID to vote in next year’s Mayoral elections. Earlier this year, a trio of reports by the Electoral Commission, the Local Government Information Unit and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution were published, all painting a chaotic and undemocratic picture of the first use of ID in May’s local elections.

The number of those locked out of the democratic process by the ID rules isn’t fully known. However, current estimates, likely to be an under-estimation, have the number at 14,000. Given that local elections weren’t occurring in every local authority in the country this does not spell good news. The Electoral Commission found that it had a disproportionate effect on disabled and unemployed voters, 18-25-year-olds as well as people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

With an estimated 15% of Londoners without compatible ID there could be thousands locked out of voting come May 2024.

We should be getting more people involved in our democracy, not putting up barriers to taking part – or taking away voters’ ability to express who they want as mayor.

Do you think that First Past the Post should have no place in our Town Halls? Add your name to our call.

Add your name to our call

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