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Anthony Breach: Metro mayors were the big winners at the local elections – but will now be put to the test | Conservative Home

Anthony Breach is a Senior Analyst at Centre for Cities, where he leads on housing and planning.

If we’re honest, local elections haven’t been local for a long time now. Spectacular failures of their local council aside, most voters have long treated these contests as a chance to deliver either a frustrated thump or a cautious endorsement to the incumbents in Westminster.

National media coverage has reflected voter attitudes, with very little coverage from a local perspective, no polling of council elections, and control of local authorities tallied up by journalists first and foremost as points on the national scoreboard.

The 2024 local elections were different. Coverage was a little less national, and a little more local.

Instead of councils, mayors were at the centre of the debate, and as a result, so were the places they were running to lead. Multiple polls were ran in the key battlegrounds of London, the Tees Valley, and West Midlands. Coverage concentrated on these three contests, with a special focus for the West Midlands nailbiter.

However, results day then saw what appears to be a paradox. The mayors were feted in the national debate as proof of each main party’s strong national performance. But under close inspection, the mayoral contests were the least national and most local of any of the contests that occurred last week.

Take Tees Valley. Ben Houchen comfortably won a third term in office, and a majority in every borough. But the only borough in the Tees Valley to have local elections this year, Hartlepool, followed the national trend, with large losses for the Conservatives and Labour gaining control of the council.

Similar patterns played out in the West Midlands, where Andy Street won 49 per cent of Dudley’s mayoral vote even as the local authority slipped out of Conservative control. These mayors outperformed the Conservative’s national trend because voters saw them as local leaders who had delivered for their place.

The importance of the local explains why the new mayoral areas without incumbents (North Yorkshire and East Midlands) saw upset Labour victories shaped by the national debate, and why perceptions that Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty has struggled led to a tighter contest than the national polls suggested.

The source of the apparent paradox is that while the mayors were at the front of the local election coverage, the local aspect that saw them elected was not.

Though the mayors earn strong personal votes on their practical record on securing investment and new jobs, the national debate immediately translated their performance into the abstract divides of Westminster. Debates about whether the mayors are in a “moderate” faction or otherwise misses the point; they are factional for their place.

Nevertheless, the initial logic of the Conservative’s mayoral devolution agenda is playing out as expected. The mayors care about local growth, voters recognise this, and national growth should therefore improve as they gain responsibilities and powers from Whitehall and from councils. This argument is why both the Conservatives and Labour currently agree that mayoral devolution should go further in the next Parliament.

Yet whether that cross-party consensus can withstand ten Labour metro mayors (plus the Mayor of London) and one Conservative metro mayor is for now an open question.

In part, this is a problem of the Conservatives’ own making. Resistance to devolution deals among councillors in the shires (despite their popularity with voters) now means that mayoral powers and funding are concentrated in the more Labour-inclined half of England. Forthcoming mayors next year in East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire are likely to be happier hunting grounds for Conservatives.

But to sustain this cross-party support, the structures surrounding the mayors need to change. They need to be held accountable at the local level to further develop their local roles distinct from national political trends. This requires enhanced scrutiny arrangements and stronger electoral mandates.

At present, mayors are scrutinised by a Brussels-style committee of local authority leaders. In places particularly safe for one party, this runs the risk of mayors marking their own homework; in areas where the mayor and leaders are from different parties it risks rambunctious political squabbles, as with those that have occurred in the West of England (Bristol) and the West Midlands this year.

A shift towards directly elected representatives to do the scrutinising, similar to the London Assembly, would guarantee all the major parties can hold their mayors to account from a local perspective.

Greater legitimacy can only come from stronger role for the local ballot box in shaping local politics. Yet despite the enhanced level of media interest, most mayoral contests saw lower turnout than that of the 2021 elections.

This seems to have been a national phenomenon that the mayors mitigated, with nearly all Police Crime Commissioners (PCCs) elections seeing similar or larger drops in turnout. However, the increasingly scrambled local election calendar, with mayoral and borough elections run in separate years cannot be helping local voter interest.

A reorganisation of the local election calendar to create a ‘Super Thursday’, with all council elections ran all-out and synchronized with their mayoral elections, would tidy up the local election calendar significantly, reduce the pressure on campaigners, and give voters greater ability to judge mayors and councils for what they’ve done locally rather than national political trends, boosting awareness and turnout.

Overall, there are two big lessons from the recent elections. The first is that the Conservative’s mayoral devolution agenda is succeeding. Politics and power are being transferred out of Westminster to the mayors, and voters are paying attention.

The second is that the next major round of mayoral elections in 2028 will be an important test for both the Conservatives and Labour. Every mayoralty will be all to play for – if the parties choose strong candidates, and focus on local delivery.

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