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Metro-mayor elections: a new type of second-order election?

As polls open a range of electoral features – personality, campaigning and voting systems – will tell us if voters see today’s elections as ‘second-order’

Georgina Blakeley, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the Open University and Brendan Evans, Professor Emeritus of Politics at the University of Huddersfield

Metro-mayor elections are clearly second-order elections as defined by Reif and Schmitt (1980). Second-order elections are characterised by lower turnout than in national-level elections and they are perceived as less important by voters, parties and the media.  Another main characteristic of second order elections – that voters are more prone to vote for protest or peripheral parties – remains to be confirmed by the metro-mayor elections in the three Northern city-regions – Tees Valley, Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region – which are our focus.  Today is polling day in those three regions and by tomorrow we’ll know the results.

Our extensive interviews with political leaders across these three Northern city-regions failed to produce consensus about what type of election is being held. Interpretations ranged from local council elections led by local councillors and the established political party machines, to the elections being seen as akin to conventional general elections but also as ‘piss-poor’ presidential elections. From within the party machines, it has been suggested that the closest analogy is with party leadership elections, although this could just be an indicator of the prevalence of hustings with interested lobby and sectoral groups from property developers, think-tanks, youth groups to women’s organisations.  The quantity and heterogeneity of hustings to which the mayoral candidates have been invited is one indicator of the novelty of these elections.  Such events are time consuming for the candidates and yet, despite their ubiquity, they are unable to reach, in the words of one candidate, ‘the disinterested’ and the uninterested.

The personality basis of the mayoral process could have substantially reduced the importance of party machines and conventional campaigning yet there is considerable evidence of party campaigning activity, for example, the distribution of leaflets, canvassing and the identification of the vote. Political parties, for example, have been referring to ‘marked’ copies of previous electoral registers purchased from local authorities, which provide information about whether individuals vote or not (and how frequently) before targeting them with campaign messages. Conventional campaign strategies remain important but social media – particularly Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – are also used by all candidates with evidence that some parties seek to compensate for a lack of local party activists with this social media presence.  As the production of printed literature has become quite expensive, a more cost-effective measure of boosting a campaign is through social media.  At present, it costs a political party roughly £25,000 to produce a run of leaflets to be distributed across the Liverpool city-region, whereas to advertise a campaign on Facebook amounts to around £1,000.  Of the three main political parties, Labour has the edge in terms of ‘foot-soldiers on the ground’.  These electoral tests are predominantly for Labour as the dominant party, in the three city-regions, to lose.  There are substantial Labour leads (according to the May 2015 general election) in Liverpool City Region (40.9%), in Greater Manchester (19.7%) and Tees Valley (13.4%).  One Greater Manchester councillor affirmed the likelihood of a Labour victory with the declaration ‘Well, we are in Manchester!’

The metro-mayor elections, however, are also campaigns about the suitability of an individual candidate for the new office. Party matters but so does personality.  Each candidate, both in their manifestos and appearances at hustings, emphasises their back story.  All emphasise their local roots which highlights the importance of place to these elections. As one councillor commented on the campaign ‘it will be very much about us here – it’s not a national party campaign.’  In conversations with voters, local links clearly matter.  For example, there is scepticism about the branding of Andy Burnham, Labour’s candidate for Greater Manchester mayor, as a Mancunian with many regarding him as ‘a Scouser’.  The emphasis on humble origins is also evident.  Steve Rotheram, Labour’s candidate in Liverpool City Region, has been branded as ‘One of Us’ through references to his former career as a bricklayer. Others place importance on their successful business trajectories and Sean Anstee, the Conservative candidate in Greater Manchester, for example, successfully stresses a combination of these different characteristics.  His slogan of ‘From Here, For Here’ emphasises his local upbringing with his mother and brothers in a council house, his local comprehensive education and his apprenticeship with Barclays at the age of 16 which paved the way for a career in international banking.

Labour’s Burnham is arguably the most high profile candidate in these elections. As well as stressing his local connections Burnham also highlights his experience in national politics which he claims will give him a stronger voice when dealing with government. While some see his interest in the office as evidence of its importance and have welcomed desire of national politicians like Burnham in Manchester and Rotheram in Liverpool to become involved in devolution, others have seen this interest as unwelcome criticism of the ability of local leaders to fulfil the role.  Candidates like Sean Anstee and Labour’s Sue Jeffrey in Tees Valley have made a virtue of the fact that they have a track record in local devolution – both helped to secure the devolution deals that led to the new metro-mayor positions being created

Candidates must nurture their party organisation to ensure the party machines operate effectively and ‘get out the vote’. This does not appear to be a significant difficulty in Tees Valley but in Greater Manchester there remains residual opposition among Labour councillors to Burnham’s attempt to insert himself into a local political framework by stressing his cabinet-level experience, a factor which he considers overrides the local credibility of those with established political careers in Greater Manchester politics.  The problem is also manifested in Liverpool with the damaging combination of individual and ideological conflict.  For example, the current elected mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, actively sought nomination for the new City Region post in a city which has not resolved the conflict between the impact of Militant and Momentum and traditional, mainstream Labourism.  This became more intense when a leaflet to support the Rotheram campaign, which depicted the Conservatives as continuing their 1980s’ policy of managing Liverpool’s decline, led to many mainstream Labour councillors refusing to deliver the leaflet as it unhelpfully evoked the city’s former negative image.

The supplementary voting system is a further novel feature of these elections. Non-Labour candidates are likely to emphasise to voters the importance of using their second-choice vote while the Labour candidates will stress the importance of gaining over 50 per cent of the ballot on the first round.  Supplementary voting, by making a second choice count, could also help less dominant candidates such as the Women’s Equality Party’s Tabitha Morton in Liverpool, UKIP’s John Tennant in Tees Valley or the Conservative’s Sean Anstee in Greater Manchester.  There is evidence, for example, that Anstee is actively cultivating the second votes of even those with a Labour allegiance, including local councillors, in his attempts to make it a genuine two-horse race in Greater Manchester.  It is likely that turnout will be enhanced by the Labour Party’s efficiency in organising its supporters to return their postal votes which, together with its capacity to identify its support, may impact favourably on both turnout and Labour’s performance.  The possibility of an increased percentage of spoiled ballot papers should not be disregarded as, for many people, the supplementary voting system is unfamiliar.  This could potentially lead to ballot papers being completed incorrectly and their votes being discounted as a result.

Turnout matters. Original concern over a low turnout in a ‘fallow’ year without normal council elections being held on the same day has now been replaced by concern that the metro-mayor elections will be affected by the forthcoming general election.  It is argued that turnout and voter attention in second-order elections is intensified if second-order elections and national elections occur concurrently.  The metro-mayoral and national elections are a month apart and whilst the proximity of the two contests might conceivably generate interest among the electorate it is more likely it will result in voter fatigue and so depress voter participation.  This, however, will not stop observers from regarding the metro-mayor elections, like other second-order elections, as an electoral test for the strength of the main political parties.  Yet the importance of personality in the metro-mayor contests remains a factor which sets them apart from other second-order elections.

The election results will soon be known. In the third and final part of our assessment of metro-mayors we will assess the results and turnout in each of the three areas and what they tell us about the democratic legitimacy of these new positions and the standing of the parties nationally.

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