Coverage of the local elections has been dominated by punditry over what the results mean for next year’s general election and the government’s controversial voter ID scheme, which saw countless people turned away from casting their ballot.
Yet, there was another less heralded, but no less significant, development that happened during Thursday’s vote: for the first time mayoral elections were decided by First Past the Post (FPTP).
First Past the Post imposed on mayoral contests
As well as bringing in voter ID, the government’s Elections Act also quietly scrapped the Supplementary Voting system (SV), which has been used for elected mayors since they were created in the early 2000s.
Supplementary Vote is a preferential system where voters mark down their first and second-choice candidates. Then, if no candidates win more than 50% of the vote share when the votes are counted, the two top candidates go through to a run-off second count where the second preferences of the eliminated candidates are tallied to produce a winner.
The supplementary vote ensures that elected mayors have a mandate from a broad range of, and often the majority of voters, as opposed to First Past the Post where mayors can sneak in on a relatively small proportion of the vote.
Conservatives win under the system they brought in
On Thursday we saw the impact that switching to FPTP had on mayoral races, as incumbents were returned with far smaller mandates. The most eye-catching result happened in Bedford, where the Conservatives took the mayoralty for the first time with their candidate Tom Wootton beating the incumbent Liberal Democrat mayor Dave Hodgson by just 145 votes. Yet, whereas under SV, Mr Hodgson had held the post with a mandate 54% after the second preferences had been counted in 2019, Mr Wootton won the race on Thursday with just 33% of the vote.
It was a similar story in Middlesborough where Labour took the mayoralty from Independent Andy Preston with a majority of 760 votes, and just 40% of the vote. In 2019, Mr Preston had won the seat with 59% of the vote on the first round.
In both these cases, rather than having to win the support of a majority of voters, the new rules mean the new mayor only had to beat their main opponent by a single vote.
Unlike MPs, local mayors have broad spending powers
SV was implemented when local mayors were created as it was recognised that the office wields significant influence over the residents they govern. Local mayors run town halls budgets and make key decisions on spending and vital local services. As such, it is important that they command a mandate that reflects the majority of voters.
On Thursday, the switch to FPTP delivered exactly what was expected: mayors taking control of town halls with shrunken minority mandates and a backward step for local democracy.
Say no to First Past the Post in local government