England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Turns out that you can read something into the figures


Do the election turnouts for the mayoral and PCC votes tell us anything? wonders Janet Sillett.

2016 turnout

  • London mayor – 45.6 per cent – up from 38.1 per cent in 2012
  • Bristol mayor – 45.7 per cent – up from 27.9 per cent in 2012
  • PCCs – Where local elections also took place then turnout for PCC elections was generally around 10 per cent higher than the first time they were elected. Where no other local elections took place turnout was still higher, but by less than 10 per cent.

What does it mean…if anything?

Can these turnout figures tell us anything about the state of local democracy in England? And about the relative accountability, visibility and status of different forms off governance? Yes I think they can tell us something – but maybe the messages need a bit more analysis than a quick read through.

They seem to show that voters are more engaged with elected mayors in our biggest cities than they are with councils generally and that not very many people seem to care much at all about PCCs.

But to delve a bit more?

Do new types of models become established over time? It looks like they do. But turnout doesn’t tell us this – the PCC turnouts this time were higher than the first time they were elected but this is from an absurdly low figure. The turnout in the London mayoral election was higher this time but London has always been a massive high profile event anyway. Bristol however showed a large increase in turnout. The two mayoral elections in Salford and Liverpool were, though, not high – 30 per cent in Salford and 31.4 per cent in Liverpool. Perhaps reflecting how highly fought the London and Bristol elections were compared to the other two where Labour were always miles ahead?

What is more significant is that the independents who won a good number of PCC seats first time around nearly all lost to the established parties, even though the parties didn’t promote the PCC candidates as much as they could have done.

So why are PCC turnouts so low? After all, these are very important positions with serious powers and they could gain even more under legislation going through parliament. Is it that they haven’t captured the public’s imagination and are ‘below the radar’? Apparently so – but actually PCCs do make the news locally and nationally (especially when things go wrong). It seems to me that it is the political parties to blame here – they gave little attention to these elections. Voters turned up to polling stations sometimes without a clue as to who the candidates were or what they were proposing. The low turnout reflects this. And it undermines the accountability of PCCs to local people – one of the key reasons for establishing them in the first place.

The interest in the directly mayor contests in London and Bristol is more encouraging. Does this mean that elected mayors are delivering strong and visible leadership which is reflected in the turnout to vote? I think it does show that elected mayors in some areas are perceived as leaders of place rather than rather than just leaders of their council. Which must be positive if mayors are being promoted as key to invigorating growth and development in the new devolved authorities. Of course this doesn’t necessarily negate the concerns some have about elected mayors which have been well aired, but it does imply directly elected mayors can tick some of the boxes around a livelier and more engaged local democracy.

We are about to see a new form of elected mayor in the combined authorities. George Osborne sees the new mayoral model as the key phenomenon driving devolved government. Will the interest of the public in the elected mayors in Bristol and London be repeated? I believe that we have to be cautious here. These mayors will be very different beings. They will have more powers (though shared with the cabinet) over a wider set of functions over a larger area, but it will be harder for them to be seen to be representing a place. And anyway as we have seen in Salford and Liverpool having an elected mayor doesn’t guarantee increases in voter interest (even if the mayor is positive in other ways).

Of course this is only part of the story for and against the new combined authority mayors but it is surely an important one to think about. Having a mayor rather than a different type of model such as chair of the authority will be promoted by its supporters by insisting a mayor gives focus and visibility to place – yet how can this be the case where a mayor covers such a diverse area which doesn’t have a perceived identity?

If we really want novelty and engagement maybe Talkeetna, Alaska can show us the way? Mayor Stubbs has been at the helm of the small town of for 15 years – an impressive feat for any elected official, but even more so considering Stubbs is a cat.

mayor stubbs