Five big issues from our mayoral masterclass press briefing

One month before the elections, our panel discussed the key political and economic debates in the city regions electing mayors

Yesterday represented the ‘one-month-to-go’ point for the first metro mayor elections taking place in six city regions across England. To mark the occasion, Centre for Cities teamed up with the Political Studies Association to hold a ‘mayoral masterclass’ briefing for journalists, featuring Prof Tony Travers (Director of LSE London), elections expert Prof John Curtice, and the Centre’s principal economist Paul Swinney.

You can listen to the full recording of the event here, but five issues in particular stood out from the discussion

1. The West Midlands will be the key political battle-ground in next month’s elections

As both Prof Curtice and the Centre’s analysis of voting patterns demonstrate, the closest mayoral electoral race is likely to be in the West Midlands, where Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in the last election was less than 10 points – giving Conservative candidate Andy Street what Prof Curtice described as a “50-50” chance to pip Labour’s Sion Simon to the post. Elsewhere, Labour’s candidates are clear favourites for the Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region mayoralties, while the Conservatives have the edge in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and the West of England.

2. The track record of mayors in the UK shows they have been popular with local residents 

While there has been scepticism in some quarters about the new mayoral roles, Prof Travers made the point that exiting mayoralties have generally been popular with local residents. In part, this is because mayoral elections (especially in London) have often come down to a choice between Labour and Conservative candidates, resulting in candidates taking a “centrist” approach, which goes beyond strict party-political lines and aims to appeal to as many voters as possible. Prof Travers also suggested that the fact that high-profile Westminster MPs have chosen to run in the metro mayor elections may go some way in dispelling public cynicism about the roles.

3. The personalities and political affiliations of mayoral candidates will both matter, but to different extents in different places

Prof Travers noted that while the Conservative Party logo features prominently in Andy Street’s manifesto, the Labour party barely gets a mention in Andy Burnham’s manifesto for his candidacy in Greater Manchester. This illustrates two points about the mayoral campaigns. Firstly, some candidates will see their national political affiliation as a potential vote-winner in their city regions, while others will consider it politically expedient to distance themselves from their national party leadership. Secondly, candidates such as Burnham might be said to be taking a personality-led approach to gaining votes, rather than simply relying on traditional political affiliations to carry them over the line, much in the same way as former London mayors such as Ken Livingston and Boris Johnson did.

4. To be successful, the new metro mayors will need to work closely with both national and local government, and across party-political lines

The upcoming elections are likely to result in a number of Labour mayors working under a Conservative national government, and as Prof Curtice noted, it will be imperative for these mayors to forge strong working relationships with national government and Whitehall. There will always be public differences, but the challenge for the mayors will be balancing political point-scoring with maintaining influence with the Government (which has been the case for all three London mayors). Moreover, as Paul Swinney pointed out, the new mayoralties are different from existing city mayoralties (for example in Liverpool and Bristol) in that they will need to work closely with their combined authority cabinets, which can veto some of their decision with a two thirds majority. As such, developing ties with national and local colleagues, and across party lines, will be critical for the new mayors to be successful.

5. The introduction of metro mayors won’t come at the expense of celebrating civic identity

One audience member raised the question of whether the lack of a coherent civic identity in places like the West Midlands might get in the way of effective policy-making or result in weaker public interest in the elections. Paul Swinney argued that the new mayors will need to demonstrate that they are working on behalf of all parts of their city regions, and to make the case for why taking decisions at city region level does not undermine civic identity in particular places within those geographies. Prof Travers also made the point that Greater London’s local government institutions have played a critical role in shaping the capital and its surrounding areas as a coherent civic entity, and therefore that the introduction of metro mayors might have a similar impact in places like the West Midlands.

As the elections on 4th May get closer, these issues will no doubt continue to be debated and contested across the six city regions introducing metro mayors. Watch this space for more analysis and comment on the key issues around the mayoral elections in the weeks ahead.


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