Apathy, Allegiance, and Anger, the Mayoral Elections Against a Backdrop of Voter Turmoil

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In our latest blog, Rebecca Riley observes that despite efforts to engage voters, turnout remains low due to factors like voter apathy and a lack of understanding about mayoral roles.

For the political wonks, in England, the bank holiday weekend was a nail-biting and fascinating affair, especially when it comes to devolution. Combined Authority Mayors were high on the wonk agenda, but sadly still low on the voter agenda, as turnout again remains low. As can be seen from the summary table below, only the London election broke the 40% turnout barrier.

Table 1: Voter turnout and results for Mayoral Elections 2024

Candidate Area Party Turnout Votes Share
Sadiq Khan London Labour 40.50% 1,088,225 43.80%
Tracy Brabin West Yorkshire Labour 32.70% 275,430 50.40%
Andy Burnham Manchester Labour 32.10% 420,749 63%
Kim McGuinnes North East Labour 30.90% 185,051 41.30%
Ben Houchen Tees Valley Conservative 30.80% 81,930 53.60%
David Skaith York and North Yorkshire Labour 29.90% 66,761 35.10%
Richard Parker West Midlands Labour 29.80% 225,590 37.80%
Claire Ward East Midlands Labour 27.60% 181,040 40.30%
Oliver Coppard South Yorkshire Mayor Labour 27.60% 138,611 50.90%
Liverpool Steve Rotherham Labour 23.70% 183,932 68%

Source data from Sky News. Accessed on 07/05/24.

Voter apathy affects turnout, and if people can’t see the point or lack interest in the election they don’t vote. It is also affected by many issues from other elections to the weather, but this is the first set of mayoral elections which have happened against a backdrop of party in power having high levels of negative ratings.

This did result in the two incumbent Conservative mayors muting their relationship to the party while campaigning with Andy Street promoting ‘Team Andy’ and putting place before the party. Their allegiances as mayors coming under scrutiny by commentators and journalists alike. Andy Street became the most high-profile loss for the Conservatives and the tanking support of the party has hindered mayoral candidates. What has become clear is a genuine investment in local success is not enough, a mayor also needs a profile with the electorate and a party brand that makes the path to success easier. If senior Conservatives are ‘angry, annoyed and fed-up’ how will they convince voters?

Attitudes towards Mayoral Candidates

Before the elections, MORI conducted fieldwork which explored public attitudes toward the mayors of Greater Manchester, West Midlands and London, views on their performance in office, opinions of the other candidates, and attitudes towards the most important issues to people’s vote in the upcoming local elections. Andy Burnham had the most positive ratings with 59% in favour, this translated to his vote share of 63% of the overall vote. Sadiq Khan had 38% favourable close to eventual vote share of 43.8% (which was an increase on the last election).

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham both stood in staunch Labour areas where they had the highest share of votes. Burnham had higher turnout Rotherham possibly hit another barrier to voter engagement – safe seat residents, people don’t vote when they think the incumbent will likely get in again.

In the West Midlands, the balance was 34% favourable for Andy Street but around half were neutral or didn’t know. Given turnout was just under 30%, this lower favourable rating can have a greater significance if your voters don’t turn out on the day. Other candidates’ rates were even lower, Richard Parker had a favourable rating at only 12%, and 56% didn’t know him, yet still went on to win the election by just 1508 votes.

What can Mayors do?

In general, one of the main issues facing mayors is a lack of understanding and knowledge of what they do. The MORI fieldwork found that across England as a whole, the most important issues for people in local elections are the NHS (61%), the condition of streets, roads, and pavements (56%), the cost of living (55%), and crime and policing (50%). Mayors have very little control over these key issues (unless they are also the Police and Crime Commissioner). Although increasingly powerful roles, the power so far is focussed on transport, skills, the local economy, and the environment. They don’t all have the same powers either, making it difficult for the electorate to understand what they are voting for.

There is a mismatch of funding and the needs of local places, research work from City-REDI has highlighted this time and time again, lack of devolved funding and capacity to deliver it is holding back mayors. The mismatch between local needs and the effort required to win funding means the mayoral model is underpowered and distracted from delivery, through competitive bidding and endless negotiation with central government on successive deals, pouring over the minutia of activity when strategic objectives should be agreed, and places left to deliver change through appropriate public spending governance and evaluation of impact.

Back in 2017, I was on a panel at the Conservative Party Conference, the role of the Mayor was highlighted as ‘being able to get things resolved despite not having the powers’, as Joseph Chamberlain had in the past, earning him, and Birmingham, the epithet ‘the best-governed city in the world’. The power to convene, bang heads together and drive change is not just the virtue of the office, a point raised by Ben Houchen (who now remains the only Conservative mayor after last weekend). This is not just power for power’s sake, but using the levers available to address wider challenges even if you don’t have direct power. This means mayors must be influencers, collaborators, and place champions. Soft power and the power to convene are key, as is the power to work across political divides and differences. Party politics have less importance when examining the huge issues city regions must tackle.

However, party politics have played out in these elections, and discontent with the party of government has affected the candidates’ capacity to win votes. To win in those circumstances you must have high popularity and a voter perception that you lead for them and on behalf of them for your place, and place comes first. Ben Houchen was on to this back in 2017 and has arguably driven this agenda all through his time as mayor. There is something to learn from Ben and Andy Burnham, in a world of confusing roles, geographies and politics the ability to be clear about who and what you represent from the outset is essential.

With nearly a clean sweep of Labour mayors, this does have implications for the voice of communities left behind. As mayors need to assert their role, authority, and impact, to secure future elections, demonstrating how they have found a new, community-driven approach to decentralisation and reducing inequality, challenging any government is crucial for their survival as political agents.

For wider democracy, we need to do better at making political roles understandable. Whilst us political wonks chat amongst ourselves, a wider understanding of democratic accountability, purpose and function is being eroded. Where do we learn about the role of a mayor? Political literacy is low across the board and the challenge for devolution is how do we change this, improving turnout and voter knowledge so better decisions are made in the interest of people and place.

This blog was written by Rebecca Riley, Associate Professor for Enterprise, Engagement and Impact and Co-Director of City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the author and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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