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What is driving the shift to simple plurality for English mayor votes?

Mike McCartney

11th May 2021

Another piece of constitutional tinkering for partisan advantage, we could say.

When I undertook my Master's Degree in Politics about twenty years, my hypothesis was that the use of the referendum in British politics has never been driven by high-minded democratic ideals as to how the constitution could be adjusted to be more responsive to the will of the people. Instead, it was employed as a purely tactical device in an attempt (though not always successfully) to resolve an inter or intra-party dispute. This was notwithstanding the fact that a great deal of academic literature had been published in the referendum as a democratic device as an adjunct to representative democracy - the work of AV Dicey being uppermost here.

Let's face it, on the surface this doesn't appear like a particularly insightful piece of thinking on my part. But, we have to bear in mind that in the early noughties we were nowhere near as cynical about the motivations politicians as we are now. And, secondly, the whole point of a piece of academic research (in my case, I took the form of an end product of 30,000 words), is to undertake the necessary legwork to back up the original hypothesis. So to that end, it was endless hours trawling through political biographies, trips to the Labour Party archives in Manchester, the Conservative party archives in Oxford, and so on. There were the occasional glimmers of deep thinking, buried in the diaries of the likes of Tony Benn, but overall it was pretty thin gruel.

So what's the point of this, I hear you ask. Well, the point is that as for the referendum we could pretty much say the same about any constitutional reform.

Devolution was intended as a piece of architecture to stem the tide of the Scots Nats. Indeed, even the electoral system for the new Parliament was chosen to avoid the possibility of the pro-independence party taking control of government (which, as just said, was not entirely successful). We could also point to Lords reform in the late 90s. Even the least cynical among us would have to question whether this was no more than an attempt to cure the headache of the Lords blocking the last Labour government in the 1970s.

So how does this get us it to the plan to bin the Supplementary Vote for English mayoral elections? As reported in the paper earlier this week:

"Ministers are pressing ahead with changes to electoral law that could make it easier for Conservatives to win future mayoral elections, as Labour claimed 11 of the 13 posts being contested across England.

The UK home secretary, Priti Patel, has already unveiled plans to switch all future English mayoral elections from the existing supplementary vote system – in which the public ranks their two favourite candidates – to the first past the post system used in elections to the House of Commons.

Prof Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, said analysis of Thursday’s polls suggested this change could open a potential route to victory for the Tories in cities such as London.

“It’s likely that first past the post would make it somewhat easier for the Conservatives to win if they could come up with a really good candidate,” he said."


We could se this as no less than a naked power grab by the incumbent government, critics would argue. But how is this constitutional tinkering for party advantage? Originally, the directly elected mayor idea was brought into being by the Tony Blair government. Blair had been impressed by the way in which NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani had improved city life, and the then PM saw it as a way of reinvigorating local democracy, by putting a face in local decisions. At the time the city mayor idea was not a constitutional reform, instead it was administrative, because it simply restructured how central government funding was delivered. SV was chosen because by ensuring the winning candidate had a majority of the vote it would hopefully enhance the legitimacy of the new office holder, wherever and whenever that might be. There is no evidence that the choice of electoral system was intended to give Labour candidates an advantage. But, if anyone can find some, I'd be glad to hear about it - it might be time for a PhD thesis on how UK constitutional reform has never been about anything more than short term party political advantage.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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