10 May 2011

The biggest English cities outside London will soon choose whether or not to adopt powerful elected mayors. A look back at previous mayoral elections suggests we can expect to see a boost in the status of local politics, city leaders with a national profile and more independent candidates getting elected.

Last week the nation emphatically rejected AV as a way to elect its MPs. On the same day voters in Middlesbrough, Mansfield, Bedford, Torbay and, for the first time, Leicester used a form of AV (the supplementary vote) to elect five executive mayors.

There are now 14 elected mayors in the UK governing cities including London and Middlesbrough. As 11 of England’s biggest cities gear up to decide whether to adopt the mayoral model in local referendums early next year, we look back at last week's results and look at some of the emerging trends.

The rise of the independents?

In Middlesbrough, Independent candidate Ray Mallon easily beat his closest opponent, Labour's Michael Carr, by 17,917 votes to 11,405. This is Mallon’s third consecutive win and makes him one of seven mayors who have managed a three term run (there are now 22 people who have held mayoral office in England.) Mallon rose to fame in the late 90s for his 'zero-tolerance' policies while detective superintendant at Middlesbrough police, gaining him the nickname Robocop.

Mansfield saw the re-election of another three-term mayor, Tony Egginton. The run off saw Mayor Egginton squeeze into first place with 12,680 votes, just 67 more than his Labour rival Stephen Yemm. Mayor Egginton is one of seven people to have won mayoral office without running on a party ticket; a remarkable one third of all mayors so far.

In Torbay, the previous Conservative mayor Nick Bye had been de-selected by his party having served just one term. Mr Bye ran as an independent and was narrowly defeated in the run-off by the new Tory candidate Gordon Oliver. Oliver polled 12,716 votes to Bye’s 9,631. The mayoral race received unprecedented attention in Torbay when the candidates took part in a debate televised on BBC South West last month.

Party Number of mayors
Total 22
Labour 8
Conservative 5
Liberal Democrat 2
Independent 7
Other 1

NB: one mayor switched affiliation half way through a term so is counted twice.

How Bedford bucked the trend and backed Lib Dem

The influential blog Political Betting said the race in Bedford displayed "all the feel and intensity of a Westminster by-election." The Tories were expected to win the seat in 2009 but lost, having fielded a candidate chosen in an open primary. This time efforts where doubled and even the Prime Minister showed up to lend his support to the Conservative candidate, John Guthrie.

In the end the Liberal democrat incumbent Dave Hodgson managed to buck the national trend and retained the seat in the run-off, attracting 24,291 votes - 5, 000 more than Guthrie. Turnout for the election was an impressive 48%.

Perhaps the most spectacular victory of the lot was that of Sir Peter Soulsby in the first of the big-city mayoralties in Leicester. The Labour candidate is not the only MP who has (or plans to) resign a parliamentary seat in order to run for mayor of a big city. Sir Peter gained 46,948 first round votes leaving his closest rival, Conservative candidate Ross Grant, trailing in his wake with less than 10,000. The Leicester race also benefited from a high profile televised TV debate.

The incumbents' success

All this suggests that the advent of mayoral governance in our biggest cities holds the promise of a higher profile local politics, with nationally known leaders operating on more of level playing field with Westminster. It also shows that we can expect less party political local government with significantly more independent candidates acting as champions for their cities.

Overall, the results saw one Conservative hold, one Lib Dem hold, two Independent holds and a Labour win in a newly created mayoralty. Three of the four incumbents successfully defended their position.

In 2010 the mayoral elections also saw all four incumbents re-elected. Indeed, of all the mayoral elections so far, where the incumbent has run for re-election they have won 78% of the time. Voters seem to be delivering a positive verdict on the existing mayors, now our big cities must decide.