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Elected mayors will be undermined by recent changes to the voting system

The next London mayoral election will be the first conducted under first past the post.

A man and a woman vote at a polling station in a school in Haringey.
A polling station in Haringey, north London. The 2024 mayoral election will be the first held under first past the post.

The scrapping of supplementary vote in favour of first past the post, brought in with the Electoral Reform Act 2022, risks reducing voter choice and ultimately may damage the position of mayor

On 19 July, Conservative members in London selected Greater London Assembly member Susan Hall to be their candidate for mayor. Hall saw off competition from what ended up being the only other horse in a very reduced race in KC Moz Hossain, a man with no political track record. For all the rumours that politicians with national profile might apply, none put their names forward: no Sajid Javid, no Justine Greening. The nearest the Conservatives came to a big name was minister of state Paul Scully – Today programme regular but hardly a well-known figure – but he failed even to make it onto the shortlist.

The 2024 London mayoral election could have been an opportunity for an independent

In previous years Hall’s selection might have made the London mayoralty fertile ground for an independent candidate to try their luck: an incumbent with a mixed track record (and locked in an ongoing fight over his divisive ULEZ policy) going for a third term, pitted against a little-known Conservative whose political views (pro-Brexit, pro-Trump) seem at odds with London’s demographic, would have left a big gap for someone outside the two main parties to come through. Indeed in the first ever mayoral election, an independent did win – Ken Livingstone, denied the Labour nomination, outcompeted the official nominee Frank Dobson and went on to win.

But that was under the supplementary vote (SV) system. Last year, the Elections Act 2022 undefined  – more noted for its controversial voter ID requirement and attempts to rein in the independence of the Electoral Commission – replaced SV with first past the post (FPTP). The government dropped this change into the bill late in the day, with opposition from Labour muted at best, undefined  with the opposition preferring to concentrate their parliamentary fire on the introduction of voter ID.

The abolition of the supplementary vote has handed power back to the major parties

Its easy to see why FPTP suits the major parties. Supplementary vote meant that voters could take a chance on an outside candidate without worrying that their vote would be ‘wasted’ – this was because they could allocate their second vote to the candidate they preferred (or disliked less) of the parties most likely to get through to the second round, in which the ‘top two’ of the first round go head to head.

The government said the reform was needed as SV was “overcomplicated and confusing”. But unlike FPTP, the SV system – like other voting systems put forward by proponents of electoral reform – meant anyone who could correctly forecast the last two could give some indication of their real preference with their first vote while retaining some influence on the outcome with their second.

It also meant that the main parties were incentivised to try to find candidates with broader appeal as they could not sneak through on a plurality. Broad appeal is particularly critical for highly personalised posts like mayors, whose ability to do the job depends on being a unifying figure who can represent the wider interests of their area – something which can be undermined if they are seen instead as a narrow party representative.

Of course some, like Andy Street, who came from business into politics, opted to run for a mayoral role as a Conservative rather than an independent. Others, like Rory Stewart, who in 2019 did have some political profile (though by then outside the Conservative Party) flirted with making a pitch to voters but backed off when the elections were delayed by a year due to the pandemic. The old system gave independents reason to hope they could break into the top two and pick up transfers. But the barrier against such candidates is now a lot higher.

Local and mayoral elections 2024

On Thursday 2 May, voters across England and Wales will head to the polls in a major set of mayoral and local elections. Keep up with our latest content, events and analysis on why these elections matter and the results when they come.

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Voting count council workers counting papers

The strength of mayors depends on quality candidates standing

Both parties support elected mayors – in theory at least. A good mayor can play a big role in galvanising their geography, acting as spokesperson and convenor in chief. But the success of the role depends on having quality candidates to fill them. It is possible to argue that the old system failed to deliver the independents (after Livingstone) that might excite the electorate. But the new system reduces that possibility even further and gives the choice back to party members – who no longer need to think about cross-electorate appeal.

It may be that there is a high-enough profile candidate who can win in FPTP. A former party leader who has fallen out of favour with the leadership of their party, for instance (the entry of Jeremy Corbyn – or even Boris Johnson – into the London mayor race would certainly enliven the contest). And it may be that after the Uxbridge by-election, seemingly lost by Labour over local opposition to Sadiq Kahn’s ULEZ policy, both parties suddenly become converts to having independents as mayors. It certainly looks as though Labour may be open to a rethink. undefined

The abolition of the supplementary vote was barely noticed at the time. It may only be once the implications for the mayoral system have played out that we are reminded of the consequences of allowing party political interest to trump public interest.

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