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13 January 2020

What should we expect from this year’s mayoral elections?

Only Liverpool’s Steve Rotheram and Manchester’s Andy Burnham face a less stressful path back to office than London’s Sadiq Khan.

By Stephen Bush

Sadiq Khan has formally launched his campaign to be re-elected as London’s mayor in Kingston, a Liberal Democrat redoubt. It will be the second preferences of Liberal Democrat voters that will prove decisive in the May election, although no one really expects that Khan won’t be re-elected.

Of the five metro mayors up for re-election, only Liverpool’s Steve Rotheram and Manchester’s Andy Burnham, the latter of whom did astonishingly well in a nightmarish set of elections for Labour and now has a series of achievements to his name for his re-elect, have a less stressful path back to office than Khan. You can see that in the quality of their opponents: in London, the Conservative Shaun Bailey is the smallest name ever to run for City Hall for either major party, while in Greater Manchester, the second-placed Conservatives are yet to even name a candidate.

It’s the Conservative incumbents in the West Midlands and Tees Valley, Andy Street and Ben Houchen respectively, who have tough races. In the West Midlands, where Labour has, mystifyingly, not yet selected a candidate, the former cabinet minister and Hodge Hill MP, Liam Byrne, is among the runners and riders for the nomination. Houchen, meanwhile, faces Labour’s Jessie Joe Jacobs, the founder-director of a charity.

Street won very narrowly in May 2017, when the Conservatives were well ahead of Labour and winning at a clip nationwide. In Street, who grew up in the conurbation and had been the managing director of John Lewis, the Tories had a formidable candidate whom they had put considerable energy into wooing. Labour put up Siôn Simon, a former junior minister. In terms of the level of seriousness and commitment that the two parties put into their respective selections, the competition was Khan vs Bailey on steroids.

But the Tees Valley result was more impressive because while demographically speaking the region was equally conducive to a Conservative victory, Labour’s Sue Jeffery was the heavyweight candidate. But because the contest was about the message that people wanted to send nationally, rather than locally, she lost. 

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Although the Conservatives did very well in the constituencies that make up the metro mayoralty in December, in an off-year without an unpopular Labour leader and the Brexit factor, you’d expect Street and Houchen to struggle, despite having both impressed in office.

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Unlike the London mayoralty, these were mayors imposed from Whitehall without a referendum beforehand. That there was a measure of public desire and affection for the mayoralty may be one reason why it has tended not to reflect the political times, whether that be by electing Ken Livingstone as an independent at the peak of Tony Blair’s popularity in 2000 or re-electing Boris Johnson in 2012, when the Conservatives were losing everywhere in local elections. But their occupants have, for the most part, done a pretty good job.

And the extent to which Burnham, Street, Rotheram and Houchen are rewarded in these elections for their record in office will be a sign about whether, after three fairly successful years, voters have taken these new posts into their hearts – or if they still use them as an opportunity to air their grievances with the government at Westminster.