How elections for the Mayor of London will work

Federico Scolari, Former Student Placement

Posted on the 1st April 2021

On May 6, one year after elections were supposed to be held, more than six million Londoners will be called to the polling stations to elect their mayor (alongside 25 members of the London Assembly) for the next three years. Further elections will be held in 2024 irrespective of the postponing of the upcoming ones.

Usually, elections take place every four years, with no limit on the number of terms served.

These could be the last London Mayor elections with the Supplementary Vote (SV) system, as Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced disruptive plans to introduce Westminster style First Past the Post (FPTP) for some mayoral and all Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

What does the London Mayor do?

The Mayor of London has a £17bn annual budget and a duty to create plans and policies for the capital covering arts & culture, business & economy, environment, fire rescue, health, housing and land, planning, policing, regeneration, sport, transport and young people – but the bulk of the spending covers Transport for London, the London Fire Brigade and the Metropolitan police.

How is the London Mayor elected?

Mayoral elections currently use the Supplementary Vote system. The ballot paper has two columns of boxes alongside the candidates’ names. One column is for voters to mark their favourite candidate and the other to mark a second favourite.

You don’t have to mark a second favourite if they do not have one, and you can put an X in both boxes for the same candidate – but this is effectively the same as just marking your favourite and no additional benefit comes from this.

The deadline to register to vote is on Monday 19th April 2021. Once registered, should you wish to vote by proxy, the proxy vote application deadline is on Tuesday 27th April, at 5 pm. However, if you are self-isolating and wish to give a postal vote instead, the application deadline is Tuesday 20th April, 5pm.

What is the point of the Supplementary Vote?

With the Supplementary Vote, 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.

The SV system has served London well for over twenty years. It ensures that candidates have a broader base of support compared to other voting systems -particularly FPTP- which is essential for an administration that manages over £17 billion yearly budgets towards crucial areas of government. If they used First Past the Post you could see a London Mayor elected on low levels of support – MPs have been elected on as low as 25%.

Who’s running – and how are things looking?

Some old and new faces will be standing for the mayoral race. Labour’s Sadiq Khan, who is running for re-election, is currently boasting a lead over all other candidates, according to the most recent opinion polls. Shaun Bailey is standing for Conservatives, Luisa Porritt for Lib Dems, and Sian Berry for the Green Party.

Data retrieved from Opinium Polls, March 2021.

The Supplementary Vote gives a greater number of candidates a chance at being elected, as voters can signal their true support with a first choice, without worrying about their vote going to waste as they can back a larger party with their second choice.

While they may not win this time,  the smaller parties gain a solid base to build on for the next election.

Looking back at the 2016 London Mayor election, you can see that, as the top two in the first count (as seen on the left), Zach Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan go through to the second round (on the right). The remaining candidates are excluded and people who voted for them have their votes moved to their second choice. If their second choice was Zach or Sadiq these votes are added to the totals to find the winner.

Hover your mouse over the candidates to see where their voters put their vote in the second round.

Changing the Supplementary Vote to First Past the Post is a backwards step

Priti Patel’s plans to impose First Past the Post on London thankfully will not be in place for the 2021 elections. But the change is disruptive and unreasonable, other than being needless and entirely counterproductive.

The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto did not mention any foreseeable change to voting practices, other than an ambiguous attempt to “continue to support the FPTP system”.

The Greater London Authority referendum of 1998 saw an overwhelming 72.01% of Londoners support an elected mayor – via the supplementary vote system – which is now being modified without public support.

Changing the electoral systems behind closed doors, following the expected defeat of the government’s candidate, without public involvement, would inevitably hinder representation, fairness and accountability.

The Supplementary Vote is in place to avoid mayors rising to power on low levels of support. A mayor that does not represent the diverse realities of London is one that fails the fundamental traits of democracy – in a city that has made of democratic values its core and its heart.

If anything needs changing, it would be FPTP for Westminster, which, even if it should be the beating heart of London, seems to be alienated from the progress that has built and shaped the city.

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