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The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government
Being mayor of London should be one of the most attractive political jobs on the planet. Big personal mandate. Global city. National profile. Relatively few responsibilities and strong re-election prospects.
And yet, next May Londoners will be offered a choice between a third term for Sadiq Khan (at loggerheads with the Labour leadership for, as they see it, costing them the Uxbridge by-election) and the Conservative contender, Susan Hall. A councillor from the suburb of Harrow turned London Assembly member, Hall is hardly a big name on the national stage. The few former ministers whose names were floated to stand on a Tory ticket — such as Sajid Javid and Justine Greening — never made it from speculation to selection.
Given these frontrunners, the time is ripe for an independent candidate. Before Covid postponed the 2020 mayoral race by a year, former Conservative MP and minister Rory Stewart, now out of the party, intended to run as an independent. In 2000 Ken Livingstone, denied the nomination as Labour candidate, knocked out his official opponent in the first round of vote counting and prevailed over Tory challenger Steve Norris in the second. He remained in City Hall for two terms.
Livingstone’s surprise success, a rebuke to Tony Blair that made front pages around the world, was enabled by the voting system the New Labour government introduced when it established the mayoralty. The supplementary vote system, which gives voters a second preference, has been used for the election of metro and combined authority mayors and police and crime commissioners across England and Wales ever since. Voters can use their first vote to express their real preference — and, if they are savvy enough to work out who will get through to the final two, then chose an alternative or a least worst option. It’s a compressed version of France’s two-rounds vote for president.
But next year’s elections will be different. The government amended last year’s Elections Act to impose first past the post, in line with UK general elections. Labour opposition was muted. Ministers claimed the system was “overcomplicated and confusing”. And some people did waste their supplementary vote by failing to predict who would be the final two.
But, critically, the winner in mayoral and police commissioner races was not always the person who would have won under FPTP. In two-thirds of contests, the ultimate victor was an independent or smaller party candidate placed second after the first round. The success of the climate-focused “Teals” in last year’s Australian parliamentary elections, held under the alternative vote, showed the potential for preferential voting systems to let outsiders in. It is no surprise that major parties prefer a system that helps protect their monopoly on power. The hurdle to any outside challenger for London has become much higher — few will be tempted.
There are wider implications, too. Under the previous system for choosing the mayor, the need to hit 50 per cent of the final tally meant parties sought out candidates with appeal beyond their core voters. It was one rationale for David Cameron persuading Boris Johnson to run successfully in 2008, giving him a springboard to Downing Street in the process.
Broader support helps in office — mayors have to work with other parties locally and often with a government of a different complexion. They need to stand up to national leaders of the same party if national policies do not fit local interests. A wider local mandate gives them legitimacy.
The ability to operate above and beyond party is a hallmark of the most successful mayors. Both Labour and the Conservatives claim mayors are key to the devolution agenda. We happened on a system that worked to give them more clout and with barely any debate we have now dispensed with it. London politics will be the poorer.