Mayors demand U-turn on levelling down democracy

On 17th March, mayors from across the country wrote to the government to demand that they abandon plans to impose First Past the Post on their elections. The letter, whose signatories included Andy Burnham and Tracy Brabin, was sent as peers discuss these changes in the House of Lords.

Last September, ministers introduced a proposal into the Elections Bill which would abolish the Supplementary Vote system for electing mayors and police and crime commissioners. This system gives voters a first and second preference choice, and prevents candidates from being elected on a minority of the vote.

After the Conservatives lost prominent elections because of this system, most notably for the mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the government changed the scope of the legislation at the last minute, in a manner which prevented MPs from calling witnesses to speak on electoral systems at Committee Stage.

In the letter, addressed to Kemi Badenoch, the minister who oversaw the Bill in the House of Commons, the mayors called on the government to “abandon these proposals, and instead look into how we can bring power to the people, whether in Bristol or Barnsley”.

Citing polling that voters are generally opposed to the First Past the Post voting system, the mayors argued that “knowing that we have the consent of a majority of voters helps us to make these choices, and to show clear leadership in our communities.”

The letter was coordinated by the electoral reform campaign Make Votes Matter, as part of the Democracy Defence Coalition of democracy sector organisations raising concerns about the Bill.

The mayors had previously registered their concerns to these changes in evidence submitted to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report on the Elections Bill. In his evidence to the Committee, Andy Burnham said:

“As Mayor, I am elected as an individual executive decisionmaker, not to be part of a wider legislature. That difference is important and drives the need for a different electoral system. I stand on an individual platform, and while I am proud to be a

Labour and Cooperative Mayor, I also firmly believe that Mayoral elections should be less about the main political parties and more about the individuals standing. A move to FPTP would narrow the debate and would disproportionately benefit the existing major parties in England.”

Dan Jarvis, Mayor of South Yorkshire, also wrote to the Committee, stating:

“First Past the Post is utterly unsuited for Mayoral elections, where a single postholder is being chosen. It opens the door to Mayors to be elected on far less that the majority support of their constituents, with precedents for FPTP elections being won on as little as 25% of the vote. Rather than promoting accountability, this creates an incentive for Mayors to seek the support of a committed minority.”

Party affiliation: Dave Hodgson and Peter Taylor are Liberal Democrats, the others are Labour

The full text of the letter can be found below:

Dear Kemi Badenoch MP, Minister for Levelling Up Communities

We are concerned at the UK Government’s decision to impose changes to the mayoral voting system. To change it without any local consultations or a proper debate in Parliament ignores the wishes of voters, and indisputably levels down our democracy.

The Supplementary Vote system creates clear majorities for elected officials in as geographically diverse areas as the North East, West of England, or Greater Manchester, in a way which First Past the Post simply fails to do. Often we have to make tough decisions, whether on policing, transport, or housing. Knowing that we have the consent of a majority of voters helps us to make these choices, and to show clear leadership in our communities.

So far, the Government has put forward no evidence that this will genuinely improve our democracy, or that people are broadly in favour of these changes. If anything polling has consistently shown that fewer than 30% of voters support the First Past the Post system, which maintains the government’s majority in Parliament.

We are therefore calling for the government to abandon these proposals, and instead look into how we can bring power to the people, whether in Bristol or Barnsley. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, we have seen the importance of strong local champions who can represent their areas. Rather than undermine the popular legitimacy of such figures, ministers should all be striving to further these democratic links, levelling up our democracy and empowering local communities.

Signed:

Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester

Dan Jarvis, Mayor of South Yorkshire

Dr Nik Johnson, Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough

Dan Norris, Mayor of West England

Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of North of Tyne Combined Authority

Joanna Anderson, Mayor of Liverpool

Phillip Glanville, Mayor of Hackney

Dave Hodgson, Mayor of Bedford

Ros Jones, Mayor of Doncaster

Norma Redfern, Mayor of North Tyneside

Sir Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester

Peter Taylor, Mayor of Watford

Notes

  • Make Votes Matter is the cross-party movement for Proportional Representation in the House of Commons.
  • The Alternative Vote – on which the UK had a referendum in 2011 – is not a form of PR. On 29 October 2010, Parliament voted against offering voters any form of PR in that referendum.

For all enquiries contact James Dart on 07977165044, or james.dart@makevotesmatter.org.uk. 

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