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Six things we learned from the May 2024 local and mayoral elections

IfG experts analyse the results of the local and mayoral elections.

Ben Houchen with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Teesside following his re-election as Tees Valley Mayor.
Of the two Conservative incumbents, only Ben Houchen was able to retain his mayoralty, with evidence suggesting that it was Houchen’s personal brand that saved him.

On 2 May 2024, voters across England and Wales elected 10 metro mayors, several thousand local councillors, 37 police and crime commissioners, and 25 members of the London Assembly.

Ahead of the elections, our devolution team identified six things to look out for as the results came in – so what did we learn?

1. Eleven of the 12 metro mayors are Labour – the next prime minister should think hard about how to work in partnership with this group

Labour almost secured a momentous ‘clean sweep’ of metro mayor elections, missing out only in Tees Valley, but winning the other nine contests. With two incumbent Labour mayors already in place there are now 11 Labour metro mayors of 12 in total.

All five Labour incumbents, Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Steve Rotheram in Liverpool City Region, Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire, Oliver Coppard in South Yorkshire and Sadiq Khan in Greater London, were comfortably re-elected. Labour’s Richard Parker also seized the West Midlands mayoralty by a tiny margin of 0.3%. Labour also triumphed in the three new mayoralties: the North East (Kim McGuinness), East Midlands (Claire Ward) and York and North Yorkshire (David Skaith).

While Sir Keir Starmer understandably celebrated his party’s success in these contests, he may find the Labour mayors harder to keep in line than his backbenchers. Metro mayors, of all parties, have shown a willingness to challenge their national leadership. Previous Conservative mayor Andy Street was vocal about his displeasure at Rishi Sunak’s cancellation of the northern half of HS2, which was to run into Birmingham, in the heart of his West Midlands Combined Authority area. And in his victory speech last week, Andy Burnham emphasised that his policies were, and would continue to be, ‘place first, rather than party first.’ 

The next prime minister, even if it is to be Starmer leading a Labour government, will need to consider how best to work with mayors as strategic partners of central government. As our new report recommends, the prime minister could send a strong signal by hosting a prime ministerial–mayoral summit within first two months of taking office, and establishing minister–mayoral committees for key areas like transport and housing.

2. Metro mayors can outperform their parties based on their personal brand – though national politics still weighs heavily    

Of the two Conservative incumbents, only Ben Houchen was able to retain his mayoralty, gaining 54% of the vote. This was a sharp drop on the 73% of first preference votes he won in 2021, but still comfortably enough to defeat his Labour rival. There is evidence to suggest that it was Houchen’s personal brand that saved him – local elections in his area saw both the Hartlepool council move to Labour control and the Conservative Cleveland police and crime commissioner lose out to the Labour candidate.

Andy Street could not perform the same trick, and it appears that the falling popularity of the Conservatives cost him his mayoralty, despite his own strong profile. Street previously won the West Midlands mayoralty with 49% of first preference votes in 2021, up 5 percentage points from 2017; this time, Street’s vote share dropped to 38%, losing by the narrowest of margins (0.3%) after a recount. 

Vote shares of incumbent metro mayors

As for Labour, four of its five incumbents increased their vote share from 2021. Only Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester saw his vote share fall – though he still received the second largest overall share with 63% of votes, matching his performance when first elected in 2017. 

Overall, it is clear that national political trends weigh heavily on mayoral contests – but the high name recognition and profile of many of the mayors means that, to a growing extent, voters judge candidates on their record and vision, not just their party label. 

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The next government must extend devolution to 85% of England to deliver meaningful and balanced economic growth.

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The Liverpool skyline at dawn

3. The change of electoral system saved the jobs of a number of police and crime commissioners – but may weaken the mandate of metro mayors

Last week’s election saw both mayors and police and crime commissioners (PCCs) elected under the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) for the first time. Previously these roles were elected using the supplementary vote (SV), a system that required candidates to appeal across party lines for second preference votes from supporters of other candidates. So what impact did this change have?

In the mayoral races, the change doesn’t seem to have affected any outcomes. Exactly half (5 of 10) mayoralties up for grabs were won with more than half the vote share – so wouldn’t have gone to second preferences under SV anyway (if voters had chosen their candidate as their first preference, that is).   Of the other half, reallocated votes from Liberal Democrats and the Greens would, on previous voting patterns, most likely have ended up going to Labour candidates.  

However, a key consequence of the change in system is that several mayors have now been elected with a relatively low vote share – the new West Midlands and North Yorkshire mayors won less than 40% of the vote. Previously, the winning candidates would have had to gain at least second preference backing from 50% of voters. This raises the question of whether this change weakens the mandate of mayors and makes it harder for them to act with authority as leaders of their regions. 

The change of system had a clearer impact on the police and crime commissioner results. Overall in the PCC contests, Conservatives won 19, Labour won 17 and Plaid Cymru won one. 

Eight of the PCCs won by the Conservatives did so with less than 3% lead on the Labour rival. These were Warwickshire (0.2% lead), Leicestershire (0.5%), Thames Valley (0.5%), Gloucestershire (1.0%), Wiltshire (1.8%), Cambridgeshire (2.0%), Staffordshire (2.1%) and Essex (2.8%). 

In these contests, the remainder of the vote was split between the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and some independent candidates – most of which under a SV system would again likely have cast their second preference vote for Labour. 

For these reasons, our recent paper on how the next government should complete the job of English devolution calls upon the next government to review this electoral change, with a view to switching back to a preferential voting system. 

4. Turnout fell in the mayoral elections – more work is needed to persuade voters that these polls matter

Turnout in the metro mayor elections fell almost across the board, suggesting that despite their increasing powers and budgets, mayors are still not regarded as of high importance by many voters. The 10 mayoral elections that took place on 2 May 2024 had an average turnout of just 30%, down from 2021 where the average turnout of the eight mayoral elections was 35%.

post election voter turnout

The disappointing turnout figures may further call into question the ability of some mayors to claim a strong local mandate for their plans – particularly in cases where their margin of victory was also tight. 

However, turnout for mayors was at least higher than for PCC elections, where average turnout was 24%, reflecting the very low salience of PCC elections. This supports the view that it would be best, where possible, to merge PCC powers with metro mayors.

5. The Conservatives lost ground in all the key electoral battlegrounds

By most metrics, the Conservatives performed poorly in the local elections, losing almost one in every two council seats they held before polling day. Of 16 councils they held entering the election, only six remain under Conservative control today.

change in control of contested English councils, May 2024

Labour now control 107 councils (34%), the Conservatives 60 (19%), the Liberal Democrats 39 (12%), Independent / Others hold five (2%), and 102 are under no overall control (33%).

The results also highlight that the Conservative electoral coalition faces a double pronged challenge, losing support in both “red wall” areas such as Hyndburn and Hartlepool, and “blue wall” seats such as Dorset and Rushmoor. 

Based on BBC estimates the national equivalent vote share for the Labour Party stood at 35% while the Conservatives were on 25%, the Liberal Democrats on 17% and ‘Others’ on 24%. 7 Curtice J, ‘Conservatives remain in deep electoral trouble’, 3 May 2024, retrieved 10 May 2024,  This led the prime minister to claim that a hung parliament at the next general election is on the cards. 

However, many electoral and polling experts pointed out that the large vote share for independent and minor party candidates was highly unlikely to be replicated in a general election, and that Labour’s large opinion poll lead continues to point to a majority Starmer administration being formed later this year. 8 Curtice J, ‘Do local election results point to a hung Parliament?’, BBC News, 6 May 2024, retrieved 10 May 2024

6. Labour is the largest party of local government – it now needs a plan to fix local government’s funding crisis  

By most measures the Labour party had a good set of election results, and the party  can celebrate consolidating its position as largest party of local government in England as it heads into a general election campaign with an expanded army of doorstep campaigners to call upon. 

However, assuming Labour does win power at Westminster an urgent item in its inbox will be to fix the unfolding financial crisis faced by local government. The party may be able to point the finger of blame at the Conservatives for some time to come, but that won’t change the fact that it will be its responsibility to find a solution. 

What do the 2024 local elections really tell us about UK politics?

Local Government Chronicle's Sarah Calkin joins Anand Menon and Paul Johnson on The Expert Factor podcast to make sense of a significant set of local and mayoral elections.

Listen to the episode
Keir Starmer (right) celebrates Richard Parker's win after being elected mayor of the West Midlands.

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