Local elections: A third of the vote shouldn’t make a mayor

Mike Wright, Head of Communications

Posted on the 8th May 2024

The local and mayoral elections saw the corrosive impact First Past the Post is having on our democracy writ large. Not only did we witness its continued distorting effect on local council elections, with a number of heavily disproportional results (one party took 90% of the seats up for election on less than half of the vote), but we also saw its impact on mayoral and police and crime commissioner (PCC) results for the first time.

This was the first set of mayoral and PCC elections to use First Past the Post after the government decided to abandon the fairer preferential Supplementary Vote (SV) system, which has been used since the posts were created. The result was a host of mayors and PCCs elected being on as low as a third of the vote, meaning many places now have influential politicians in place the majority of those who voted didn’t support.

First Past the Post hits mandate of London Mayor

The most eye-catching result of this switch to First Past the Post was Sadiq Khan being re-elected for a historic third term as the Mayor of London. Analysis from our research team found the changes to the rules mean he won with the smallest mandate since the office was created 24 years ago.

The Labour politician won 43.8% of the vote on Thursday, which was enough to secure him a third term under the new First Past the Post system.

All prior London mayoral elections used the traditional Supplementary Vote (SV) system, which allows voters to indicate a first and second preference. Under SV, if no candidate gets over 50% of first preference votes, the top two candidates continue to a runoff where second preference votes from eliminated candidates are allocated. This ensures winners have a broad base of support, and helps reduce ‘vote-splitting’.

We found that, after the first and second preference votes of previous winning candidates are taken into account, Sadiq Khan’s current mandate is lower than any previous winner elected under SV. The mayor with lowest vote share under SV was Ken Livingstone, who received 44.4% of votes from voters giving him either their first preference vote or a transferred second preference vote in 2004.

Vote share of London Mayoral winners after first and second preferences are counted

Vote share Winner Year Electoral System
43.80% Sadiq Khan 2024 FPTP
44.40% Ken Livingstone 2004 SV
45.30% Ken Livingstone 2000 SV
47.60% Sadiq Khan 2021 SV
47.80% Boris Johnson 2012 SV
48.40% Boris Johnson 2008 SV
50.40% Sadiq Khan 2016 SV

Under First Past the Post a third of the vote is enough to win

Elsewhere, the switch to First Past the Post saw Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) and an elected mayor win on as low as, or just over, a third of the vote.

We found that in the 2021 elections, where the Supplementary Vote was used, no winning PCC or mayor received less than 40% of the vote.

Reduced mandates – PPC and mayoral results

Vote Share Winner Party Contest
31% Philip Wilkinson Conservative Wiltshire PPC
32.3% Clare Moody Labour Avon and Somerset PPC
33.1% Chris Nelson Conservative Gloucestershire PCC
34.3% John Campion Conservative West Mercia PCC
35.2% Sarah Taylor Conservative Norfolk PCC
35.1% David Skaith Labour York and North Yorkshire Mayor

Lowing the bar for politicians – and raising it for voters

The move to First Past the Post has lowered the bar for politicians to get elected by taking choice away from voters. This is bad for voters, who now have mayors and PCCs the majority didn’t vote for; it is bad for elected politicians who must do their jobs with less backing for their policies; and it is bad for trust in democracy.

At the same time, we are seeing the bar to voting being raised, as this was the first time millions had to show ID to cast their ballot. We know that voter ID prevented at least 14,000 people from voting at last year’s local elections and this year we have again heard of voters – including a decorated ex-serviceman – being barred from exercising their fundamental democratic right due to not having an accepted form of ID from the government’s list.

Our politics is headed in the wrong direction when we are making it harder for people to vote but easier for politicians to get elected. We need to set our democracy on a better course by scraping voter ID and improving access to voting, but also by moving to proportional and preferential voting systems that better represent how people voted.

First Past the Post shouldn’t have a place in town halls

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