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Guest post by Chris Game: Be careful with local voters – they can be tricky devils

Guest post by Chris Game: Be careful with local voters – they can be tricky devils

🕔20.Feb 2012

Chris Game is Honorary Senior Lecturer, Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV), University of Birmingham.

I don’t make a habit of intruding uninvited into other people’s blogs, but, particularly since Paul Dale’s recruitment , The Chamberlain Files has become priority daily reading, and my first excuse, therefore, is simply to engineer an opportunity to express personal appreciation. The second excuse, rash though it may sound, is to have a gentle dig at the man himself – Paul, that is, not Joe.

In recent blogs Paul has suggested that, while Labour’s modest membership numbers may turn the party’s selection of a mayoral candidate into something of a lottery (January 31), the outcome of an eventual mayoral election – referendum obviously permitting – is rather easier to predict, at least in party terms. Once selected, the blogmeister reckons, the Labour candidate, whoever s/he is, would be virtually home and hosed. By contrast, Councillor Whitby’s chances in the current political climate, were he to be the Conservatives’ nominee, languish somewhere between iffy and implausible: “Most of Birmingham’s 720,000 electors usually vote Labour, and certainly did so at the 2010 local and General Election. He might have a slim chance of sneaking through on second preference votes, but national backing for the Conservative cause would have to increase substantially” (February 14).

Just for the record – because this is incidental to my central case – most of Birmingham’s electors do not usually vote Labour, at General, local or any other elections. Regrettably, the biggest single block is invariably that of the non-voters: over 41% of them at the General Election. Even among the 59% who turned out, fewer than 40% voted Labour (that is, 23% of all electors), compared to 27% for the Conservatives, and 23% for the Lib Dems. At the coinciding council elections in 2010 Labour’s vote share was even lower at 37%, but Paul Dale’s point about the changed political climate is a valid one. At the 2011 local elections Labour took 48.5% of the vote, its highest percentage for more than ten years – but, on a 37% turnout, still fewer than 18% of the total electorate.

Paul’s reasoning regarding Councillor Whitby’s chances is obviously based on the straightforward assumption that those electors who bother to vote in local elections are sufficiently committed and consistent in their political views to support the mayoral candidate of the same party they would vote for in a conventional council election. The pantomime season may be several weeks behind us, but my warning is a respectful, but nonetheless loud: “Oh no, they won’t!”  Or rather, there are far too many unknowns at this very early stage in the story to assume that they will.

Even jumping over the referendum hurdle, we don’t know anything certain about the line-up of candidates on what will be November 15th, or about those electors who may choose to participate in this novel ‘Direct Democracy Day’, when we will definitely elect a Crime Commissioner as well as possibly an executive mayor. We do know, however, that there won’t be any coinciding council elections, the main parties therefore will not be conducting their normal campaigns, and, most of all, we know from experience that voters in mayoral elections do vote differently – often, as the accompanying table shows, decisively differently.

The table takes us back almost exactly a decade, to the 2002 mayoral elections – the first ever held in this country outside London. We had observed a couple of years earlier the not entirely edifying spectacle of the London mayoral election, culminating in Ken Livingstone’s victory as an Independent, after Labour’s national leadership had, by fair means and especially foul, done everything possible to stop him getting the party’s nomination. So the one mayor who had been popularly elected had shown it was possible as an Independent to trounce not only opposition parties, but even his own, and in the biggest ‘local’ electoral arena of all. Yet still Labour went into these elections pretty confident. In a set of councils, most of which they had traditionally dominated, and on every one of which at the start of 2002 they were the largest party, they would surely be the major winners. How very wrong they were.

There were 11 mayoral elections in all in 2002, split into two groups: six in May for those authorities that had held their triggering referendums in 2001, and five in October for those whose referendums were in early 2002.  Four of the contests did go relatively straightforwardly for Labour, and are not included in the table: three London boroughs – Hackney, Lewisham and Newham – plus Doncaster, all of whom elected either current or former Labour council leaders. The other seven, as the table makes clear, very definitely did not.

Hartlepool produced the most embarrassing headlines. The council had been Labour controlled for over 20 years until 2000, since when, although Labour was still easily the largest party, it had been run by a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition. The Lib Dem mayoral candidate was therefore the serving council leader, Labour selected a local businessman who had led the local campaign for a directly elected mayor, and Hartlepool United FC nominated and paid the deposit of one Stuart Drummond, considerably better known as H’Angus the Monkey, the football team’s official mascot. For the little campaigning he did Drummond wore his mascot monkey suit, his most publicised pledge being for the council to give free bananas to all primary school children. But he topped the poll after both the first count and the crucial second count of the transferred preferences of the supporters of the eliminated candidates – because, while nearly one in every two voters (49.4%) backed Labour candidates in the council elections, barely one in four (27.8%) wanted their whole town led and run by a Labour mayor. Evidently, they’d seen enough of local Labour leadership and they fancied a change – and almost any change would do, even one that would make the town, at least temporarily, a media laughing stock.

Across the River Tees in Middlesbrough the lead character was strikingly different, but the story essentially the same. The council was as solidly Labour controlled as any in the country, with the party’s local vote over the previous 20 years never dropping below 45%. Yet in the mayoral election barely half that proportion of voters was prepared to support the Labour candidate, and they elected instead, on the first count, the former Cleveland Police Chief Superintendent, ‘Robocop’ Ray Mallon.

The pattern was repeated in other hitherto Labour strongholds, Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent, but Independents weren’t invariably the beneficiaries.  Watford had been Labour controlled or dominated since the reorganisation of local government in 1973. It was the first town to vote in a referendum in favour of introducing a directly elected mayor, and the council’s high-profile Leader, Vince Muspratt, a rare Labour enthusiast for the change, was naturally the party’s chosen candidate.  Come the election, though, he was unable to attract more than two-thirds of his party’s previously lowest council vote, and he lost, very nearly on the first count, to the far less well-known Lib Dem councillor, Dorothy Thornhill.  In North Tyneside, it was a similar story, but with the floating mayoral vote going here to the Conservative candidate, representing the council’s second largest, but perpetual opposition, party.

None of these councils, of course, are as big as, or closely resemble, Birmingham. In particular, their political histories are very different, and, notwithstanding Labour’s 20 years of control from 1984, Birmingham is not the one-party state that several of these councils had effectively become by the turn of the century. On the other hand, few electors today have the strong party identifications and loyalties of previous generations, and we know full well that many do ‘split’ their votes between parties, even when voting in two or more elections – General and local, Euro and local – on the same day. I have no idea, in a mayoral election, which party or indeed Independent candidates are most likely to benefit from many voters not giving their first, or even second, votes to the candidate of the party that they generally support.

I do know, though, that many will, and that, even with an electorate the size of Birmingham’s, their collective behaviour could swing results away from apparently ‘favourite’ parties, just as in 2002.

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