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Mayoral accountability hangs on divorcing local vote from national trends

The read-across from local contests to the national polls should be dismissed.

Andy Burnham speaking at the Salford Lads Club during the launch of his campaign for re-election as Mayor of Greater Manchester Combined Authority
Andy Burnham at the launch of his Vote Andy campaign. The mayor for Greater Manchester and the mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, ran on their personal records and distancing their campaigns from those of their respective parties.

It will be a sign of maturity of the mayoral model if voters decide on local records not national trends, argues Jill Rutter

Vote Andy was one of the big messages of the mayoral elections. Both Andy (Burnham) and Andy (Street) ran on their personal records and distancing their campaigns from those of their respective parties. Sadiq Khan, on the other hand, whose track record as mayor is more questionable, and whose personal popularity is lower, seemed much more willing to run with a bunch of red roses in hand.  

Whatever happens once the results are announced, national parties who claim to support the mayoral model will be undermining it if they emphasise the implications for overall party standing rather than discussing the judgment voters are passing on the achievements and future promises of the individual candidates.  

Local accountability is weakened if national trends determine outcomes

The George Osborne theory of devolution was that it would only work if there were high profile mayors who would be held locally accountable for their exercise of enhanced powers and stewardship of devolved cash. That was why all the initial devolution deals have required local leaders – many through gritted teeth – to accept the creation of directly elected mayors.  

But that accountability requires local voters to care about mayoral track records rather than just vote their national party preference. That is why it is a sign of healthier local democracy that high profile mayors are majoring on their achievements rather than shielding behind national brands. The more local results differ from what might be expected in a national election, the easier it is to make the case that the local accountability model is working. In some cases that might point to ditching an ineffective mayor even though their party is doing well – in others it means re-electing them even though their party is struggling.  

Party leaders will claim successes for themselves

While mayoral victors will be tempted to claim successes for themselves, party leaders will be tempted to read big national significance into the results. The outcomes for Andy Street and Ben Houchen are already being portrayed not as verdicts on their local performance (and evidence from last elections shows they were already beginning to differentiate themselves from national swings) but as evidence for or against the case for Rishi Sunak staying as prime minister.

Yet these same parties all claim to want to see more devolution and enhanced local accountability – and if that is to work they need to celebrate divergence from uniform national trends rather than claim undeserved credit for what happens. The more local contests are decided on local performance, the better the long-run prospect for effective devolution.  

The way in which the national media frame this also matters. The big headlines will be the implications for the imminent general election – but they also need to dig into the local factors that may have played a part in voter decisions. The real risk is that voters who might support an individual candidate on their past local track record or their promise to be an effective local champion are deterred from voting for them because they are worried about the signal it will send nationally about the state of the parties.  

The results of individual mayoral contests are significant

The mayoral contests – both turnout and deviation from national trend – will be an important indicator of the extent to which this form of devolution has become embedded and successfully overcome some of the initial scepticism when mayors were imposed on local areas as the price for deals.  

But as Sir John Curtice explained at length to the Institute for Government it is that very fact that makes them less interesting as indicators of the state of public opinion about the national parties and the prospects for the general election. Instead it will be the local council elections whose results will be crunched into a snapshot estimate of current party strength. So while the parties might want to claim good results as signs of their underlying strength, while attributing bad results to local factors, advocates of devolution and psephologists should join together to reject the read-across from these local contests to the national polls. 

Watch our event on the 2024 local and mayoral elections

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