New metro-mayors must now deliver on their policy commitments, and quickly seek to secure the ‘democratic moment’ that advocates of devolution promised
The elections of metro-mayors in six English city-regions, a significant constitutional innovation, might have been expected to enthuse voters and the media alike, although battle hardened spectators of politics were likely to be more pessimistic. Local elections and the looming general election overshadowed last week’s inaugural metro-mayoral elections, although unfortunately the local contests were not concurrent in these city-regions. These circumstances reduced the interest of the national media and, as we suggested in our previous blog created not so much a heightened interest among voters about the prospect of repeated visits to the polls, but rather fatigue and apathy.
The metro-mayor elections by occurring in the run-up to a general election have already been extensively analysed for their predictive ability for the main battle in June. This is inappropriate. While the results did align with current opinion polls in showing the Conservatives, winners in four of the six contests, to be in the ascendancy, the importance of personality in these local contests complicates their national forecasting ability. Personality clearly played a role in the victory of the Conservative Andy Street in the West Midlands given his reputation and experience as the head of John Lewis, as it did in the election of Andy Burnham in Manchester where he increased the Labour lead from 19.7% in the 2015 parliamentary elections to 40.7%. Neither of the two main parties, but particularly Labour, should assume a direct correlation between these victories and the upcoming general election. While Steve Rotheram is one of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest aides, the fact that Andy Burnham snubbed Corbyn’s celebratory visit the day after the election is testament to the perception that Burnham won in Greater Manchester in spite of the Labour leader, not because of him.
It is also regrettable to analyse the metro–mayor elections simply within the context of the upcoming general election as their true importance is their impact on the future of local government in England. The profile of local government and the pattern of markedly reduced turnouts in local elections, however, has always been a weakness for advocates of greater decentralisation of our politics. This objection to localism can be countered with the argument that the limited and declining powers and resources of local authorities explains voters’ relative indifference, and with the argument that personality based local contests for an exciting new political office, with national figures or local celebrities standing would intensify interest. The climate for this to occur has been dampened by the assertion, and not without evidence, that English voters reject added tiers of ‘bureaucracy’ and increased spending on politics and politicians.
The political engagés also forget the claim that the average citizen is so apolitical that s/he devotes the equivalent of four minutes a week to political reflection, a fact which helps explains that some voters that we encountered were unaware of the metro-mayor elections a mere week before polling day. Many voters were either unconcerned or uninformed: one voter neatly summed this up by declaring he would probably vote for Andy Rotheram for Liverpool’s metro-mayor.
This is not to excoriate voters as the offices of metro-mayors are new, rapidly cobbled together in ‘backrooms’, with powers that are little understood even by local lobby groups. There is also understandable confusion about the respective roles of ceremonial, city and now new metro-mayors. We have also found little concern among the politically engaged in areas in which these elections have not taken place and a tendency to dismiss them as a ‘Tory scam’. We suggest that this is the backdrop against which the turnout last week should be evaluated.
It was perhaps unwise for some of those involved in negotiating the office in Greater Manchester to predict that these elections would provide ‘the democratic moment’ to entrench the Combined Authorities in popular consciousness. This aspiration was not always endorsed by the Council Leaders and MPs in Greater Manchester in the course of our recent interviews. Those interviews produced an array of predictions that turnout would range from one like that achieved in the first Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2012 of around 13% to, at the other extreme, a prediction that turnout would approach 50%.
Actual turnout last week avoided the calamitous comparison with the PCC elections although it fell short of the 2016 local election average turnout of 33%. Turnout ranged from a low 21% in the Tees Valley to 29% in Greater Manchester and the West of England. Yet these averages hide the social bias in participation signified, for example, by the contrasts between a 20.05% turnout in deprived Halton in Liverpool City Region and 42.4% in affluent South Cambridgeshire. This suggests that much remains to be done to ensure the new offices gain legitimacy.
A couple of our interview respondents reflected that it was only when the second metro-mayoral elections occurred in 2020 would it be appropriate to use turnout as a proxy for legitimacy. By then the Mayors would have been ensconced and had the opportunity to achieve some ‘quick wins’ and failing to secure a turnout between 40-50% at that point would be inadequate. Yet in Liverpool we still heard the plea that in future metro-mayoral elections should coincide with local, and preferably, general elections to boost turn-out. That was on the agenda until Theresa May thoughtlessly abandoned the prospect of a concurrent May 2020 General Election.
This specific concern with electoral legitimacy only examines aggregate data, however, and neglects engagement from the perspective of diversity. The accusation that devolution deals were ‘male, pale and stale’ was intensified by the infamous photograph to launch the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2014 which featured ten male Council Leaders plus George Osborne. The photo has acquired mythic proportions and is much cited at hustings by the Women’s Equality Party and by the DivaManc organisation. The photograph was not entirely representative in gender terms as one female Council Leader was away on business and her male Deputy stood in, and in another case a female Deputy Leader was about to be photographed when the male Leader of her Council arrived and took her place. This has caused some defensiveness, however, with some of the local Greater Manchester political elite blaming political parties for not selecting sufficient female candidates and others acknowledging that the Combined Authority should have done more to advance women.
During the campaign, Andy Burnham promised to appoint female deputies to each of the male-led portfolios in the Greater Manchester cabinet and his first cabinet appointments, Baroness Beverley Hughes and Councillor Rishi Shori, improve diversity. However, diversity received a blow with the surprise defeat of Labour’s Sue Jeffrey to the Conservative Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley. Jeffrey was the only female candidate for metro-mayor with a good chance of victory. Only in Liverpool did the Women’s Equality Party actually stand a candidate and although her presence at hustings forced the other candidates to deal with women’s priorities, it’s clear that the issue of gender inequality has been inadequately addressed. More glaringly there is little obvious appeal to the black population in these elections. At one of the mayoral hustings in Liverpool, organised by Compass, Marvin Rees, the mayor of Bristol, who describes himself as mixed-race, made the acute observation that in bien-pensant progressive gatherings it is rare to see a black face.
Poor turnout and a lack of diversity are linked. Not only must the new metro-mayors now seek to begin to deliver on their policy commitments, they must also deliver the ‘democratic moment’ which observers originally promised. Turnout and diversity must have improved by the next election in 2020 if the legitimacy of this new office is not to be questioned.