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WM Mayor Election: where did the votes come from?

WM Mayor Election: where did the votes come from?

🕔08.May 2017

Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it, writes Chris Game!  Maybe not quite up there with Newport County escaping relegation from the English Football League, or Northumbrians having a Conservative takeover of their traditionally Labour county council thwarted by the party’s own candidate in the decisive ward literally picking the short straw. Nonetheless, still pretty tense.

The historic election of the first and – who knows (?), conceivably only mayor of the West Midlands – was decided by 0.71979% of over half a million votes cast.

READ: LIVE West Midlands Mayor Election Result – the count as is happened.

So much for my assertion in a previous blog that, while there are arguably better systems for the election of single leaders like mayors, the Supplementary Vote (SV) did have the virtues of offering supporters of defeated candidates a second choice, generally producing decisive results, and giving victors a widely accepted mandate.

The chief defeated candidate, Labour’s Siôn Simon, was restrained as he shook hands with victor Andy Street and proffered congratulations.

But the fragility of Street’s mandate – even to enact his ambitious manifesto, let alone inspire, like a latter-day Joseph Chamberlain, “the rebirth of urban Conservatism” – and its achievement in what, in comparison with anything other than Police and Crime Commissioner ballots, was an extremely low-turnout election, inevitably leave major questions to be addressed, about both the election itself and the new Metro mayoral role.

READ: New WMCA Chair takes the helm – but just what has it been up to?

The latter, and certainly the rebirth bit, can wait a few days, at least until the Mayor himself returns from his Snowdonia holiday home. This day-after-the-night-before blog addresses a couple of the issues raised by the election itself, and illustrated in the following table summarising the results across the CA’s seven politically very heterogeneous boroughs.

 

 

 

 

 

It emphasises particularly the SV’s defining feature: the two-stage count, with its opportunity for voters to make first and second candidate choices, rather than just one, and for those second votes to be counted if their first choice is eliminated – not in the first two – after the first count.

The shaded sections in the Street and Simon columns bring out, depending on your viewpoint, how closely balanced Thursday’s result was and how politically divided our Combined Authority region currently is.

I couldn’t help noticing some of the headlines in the Birmingham Mail’s local editions on Friday, announcing that Simon had ‘won’ the election in Coventry and Wolverhampton.

 

 

 

 

To be fair – indeed, more than fair, given how these headlines were presented both as “results” and as if, even if they were, they would somehow matter – the accompanying text did note that they referred to the first count only, the halfway point, as it were. In that sense Simon also ‘won’ in Sandwell and, most strikingly, in Birmingham – and after the second count, moreover, not just the first.

Indeed, he ‘won’ the second count as a whole, by well over 2,000 votes – enough to narrow the gap after the first count, but not completely close it.

Simon’s immediate reaction, understandably, was to note that in effect “it was Solihull wot won it”, with by some way the highest turnout in the region and its massive and quite unmatched 81% to 19% final vote split in favour of Street.

It would be quite unfair, not to say unproductive, for him to be labelled even in jest ‘the Mayor for Solihull’, but, as Americans might say, you can’t refute the math.

READ: WM Mayor – Kevin Johnson on day one and the aftermath.

The real problem is not Silhillians’ voting enthusiasm for Street, but the regionwide – indeed nationwide – failure of voters to take full advantage of the rare opportunity to do more in the polling booth than put a single X in a single box.

By my calculation, only just over half of the second choices – available to voters whose first choice had been one of the four eliminated candidates – were for either Street or Simon and therefore actually counted.

I don’t know how much effort the two of them and their campaign supporters put into urging voters to use both their votes, preferably thoughtfully – though, as I indicated towards the end of my earlier blog, I suspect nothing like enough. Either way, it wasn’t that effective.

As it was, in an election decided by well under 4,000 votes, over 40,000 votes that might have contributed to the result didn’t do so – an election, moreover, that might have been tailor-made for SV, with two candidates having been out on their own in an unchallenged lead throughout the whole long campaign.

As the table shows, of those four eliminated candidates’ 28 results across the seven boroughs, while their relative positions varied – three, for instance, taking at least one third place – not one of the 28 achieved 10% of the vote.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In that sense, turning to my second table, our West Midlands election was a very different race from, for instance, those in the West of England and Cambridgeshire/Peterborough, where there was much greater uncertainty about which two of at least three candidates would survive to the second count.

The clear conclusion, to me anyway, is the same that I came to following my examination in that previous blog of the second votes – or non-votes – of respondents in the Birmingham Mail’s ‘mock election’ survey.

Large numbers of electors effectively ‘wasted’ their second votes either by simply not using them or by voting in ways that would prevent their being counted – for the same candidate twice, or for candidates almost certain to be eliminated after the first count.

Common sense suggests at least a significant proportion of – in our case – the 40,000-plus, most of whom would have been encountering SV for the first time, were simply unfamiliar with the details of how SV works. And, like the dearth of similar information in polling stations, that is a responsibility, and indictment, of primarily the Electoral Commission.

As indeed is another criticism of this set of elections that will also take the form of an accusation levelled at our own elected mayor.

I’m tempted here to paraphrase William Wordsworth’s famous eulogy to the poet John Milton: “Caroline Aherne, thou should’st be living at this hour!” Tragically she’s not, having died from cancer last summer, but her Mrs Merton question to Debbie McGee surely lives on and can also be paraphrased:

Mayor Street, just what was it about your million-pound election campaign that made the crucial difference?

The Commission won itself some kudos recently by handing the Conservative Party its apparently highest ever fine for numerous violations of electoral law during the 2015 campaign. To most observers the £70,000 seemed pretty paltry, and indeed the guilty Party seemed to treat it as such – though it’s also suggested that at least one reason for our sudden snap election is the PM’s keenness to avoid a string of embarrassing by-elections caused by MPs facing prosecution for electoral fraud and resigning their seats.

I’m sure Andy Street and his party advisers have scrupulously ensured that the costs of all the lavish publicity material being produced and delivered are properly split between the ‘regulated’ and unregulated campaign periods.

It has, though, felt slightly embarrassing and even distasteful at the campaign debates, for example, to see, alongside all this gloss, four candidates for whom even raising the (seemingly excessive) £5,000 deposit has been a major task – regularly nowadays involving crowdfunding – and knowing that some at least will sacrifice it for winning under 5% of first preference votes.

As the results in my first table show, two will in fact do so, and it’s to them that this blog offers its closing thanks: the campaign that may have left them financially poorer was much the richer for their presence.

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