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Prior to May 2021, the idea of London Mayor Sadiq Khan becoming Labour leader in future was a common talking point. In 2017, a survey by BMG Research indicated that Khan would top the list of potential replacements for Corbyn; in 2020, Politico suggested his then-expected second term would be a “launchpad” to the national leadership. At one point he was leading his Tory opponent in the Mayoral race by 25 percentage points. A return to national politics for Khan seemed inevitable.
Then it all went wrong. Somehow, despite achieving commanding poll leads in the runup to the delayed May 2021 contest, Khan almost fumbled the bag entirely. He won the most first preferences, but his margin of victory shrank to 4.7pts – almost half of his 2016 margin (9.2pts), and a far cry from Labour’s 16pt margin of victory in London in the 2019 general election. The myth of Khan’s awesome popularity vanished overnight. He will likely win a third term in 2024 as a result of the Tories collapsing in polls nationally, but it’s hard to find people talking of him as a future leader now.
Meanwhile in Greater Manchester, Labour’s Andy Burnham won by nearly 50pts in a region his party carried by only 13pts in 2019. In Tees Valley, Tory candidate Ben Houchen won over 70% of the vote in a region that was a tight Tory/Labour race in 2019. And in Watford, Lib Dem candidate Peter Taylor won the local Mayoral race with 55% of first preferences even though his party got just 16% in 2019. All of these were far more impressive performances than Khan’s.
All of which begs the question: of the 26 local and regional Mayors currently in office, how have they performed relative to their parties and the partisanship of the region? Let’s take a look, as we seek to find the most electable Mayor in Britain.
There are currently 26 Mayors in Britain (10 regional, 16 local) who govern their areas as executive leaders. In local district authorities, Mayoral decisions can generally only be overturned by a two-thirds majority of local councillors; in regional Combined Authorities, ‘Metro’ Mayors govern side-by-side with a regional board composed of the leaders of the authority’s component councils.
Three local Mayors (Bristol, Copeland and Liverpool) are due to be scrapped in 2024, whilst new directly-elected regional leaders are set to be introduced in the North East (incorporating North of Tyne), East Midlands, North Yorkshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cornwall. This article covers Mayors currently in office who were elected in 2019-22.
In this piece, what I am hoping to measure is how well each Mayor performed relative to their party’s margin of victory/loss in the 2019 general election. When I say someone is more ‘electable’, I am saying that they were able to win by a bigger margin than their party in 2019.
For instance, Ben Houchen won Tees Valley by 45.6pts in 2021, compared to a 3.5pt win for the Conservatives in 2019 – an ‘overperformance’ for Houchen of +42.1pts.
Of the 10 regional Mayors in England, Labour currently holds eight and the Tories two. Both of the Tory Mayors lead regions that voted Conservative in 2019 (Tees Valley and the West Midlands), whilst six of the Labour Mayors lead regions that voted Labour. Two Labour Mayors (Nik Johnson in Cambridgeshire, and Dan Norris in the West of England) govern regions that voted Tory in 2019.
The graph below shows the margin of victory for each of these Mayors in their elections. Most of these contests took place in May 2021, with two exceptions (North of Tyne in 2019 and South Yorkshire in 2022).
Andy Burnham has the largest margin of victory out of all Metro Mayors, winning by 48pts in a region where Labour won by 13pts in 2019. This means he overperformed his party by 35pts. Here’s how each Metro Mayor performed relative to their party’s margin in 2019:
The two top-tier candidates are undeniably Ben Houchen (Con, Tees Valley) and Andy Burnham (Lab, Greater Manchester). Both won supermajorities of the popular vote, and both won all the local authorities in their region. Burnham was notable for carrying local authorities like Southport by massive margins even as his party struggled to win in the council election.
Other notable performances include Labour’s Dan Norris (who flipped the West of England from Conservative to Labour), the Tories’ Andy Street (who won by 9pts in the West Midlands, where his party barely won in 2019) and Labour’s Nik Johnson (who lost on first preferences, but narrowed the gap by 18pts and won in the second round).
The least electable Mayors are Labour’s Steve Rotherham of Liverpool (-6pts) and Khan (-11pts). Khan’s underperformance was particularly concerning because of how close he came to costing Labour the election. Rotherham, despite underperforming, still won by a landslide. Khan did not.
Metro Mayors are not the only executive leaders in England, however. 16 local authorities currently have directly-elected executive Mayors, with three of these due to be scrapped in 2024. In the most recent elections, Labour won 10 of them; the Lib Dems 2; Independents 2; Conservatives 1 and the localist Aspire Party 1 (one of the independents subsequently joined the Tories).
As this article aims to measure overperformance, the three districts with independent/localist Mayors are not included (check out ‘honourable mentions’ below for a discussion of these areas)
Of the 13 partisan local Mayors, the biggest margin of victory was achieved by Rokhsana Fiaz of Newham (+45pts). Ironically, Fiaz campaigned to abolish the Mayor, but her proposal was rejected by Newham voters in a local referendum. The same voters then re-elected her, though with a much reduced margin of victory.
Partially because of this decline in support since 2018, Fiaz actually underperformed her party by 13pts despite her landslide victory (Labour won Newham by 57pts). But this underperformance was pretty average compared to some of her fellow Labour Mayors, as illustrated on the graph below.
As there are too many local Mayors to review individually, I’ll focus here on the most and least electable. You can immediately see who the least electable Mayor in Britain is – Joanne Anderson of Liverpool, who won by a mere 16pts in a city that her party carried by 67pts in 2019. This means that Anderson underperformed Labour by a jaw-dropping 50pts (rounded).
Second to her, by quite some distance, is Hackney’s Labour Mayor Philip Glanville. He won the post of Mayor by 42pts, a hefty reduction from his party’s 60pt margin of victory in 2019.
The most electable Mayors, meanwhile, are both Liberal Democrats: Peter Taylor of Watford (+58pts) and Dave Hodgson of Bedford (+37pts). Both won districts where their party performed poorly in 2019, but Taylor tops the rankings by winning a Con/Lab marginal seat as a Lib Dem.
Taylor’s party got only 16% of the vote in Watford in 2019, a heavy reduction from 2010 when it won 32% of the vote and lost by just 1,400 votes. But Taylor was totally unaffected by the decline in Lib Dem support, winning 55% of first preference votes in 2022 – the best-ever result for his party in the district, which has held the post of Mayor for the past two decades without interruption.
If I were the Lib Dems, I would be encouraging Taylor to run for the Parliamentary seat in 2024 – given the imminent Conservative collapse and his personal popularity, he seems like their best chance to capture a seat that has slipped away from them over the past decade. Local candidates do matter, and Taylor clearly has local appeal.
One final local Mayor worth mentioning is the only sitting Mayor elected as a Conservative: Jason Perry of Croydon, elected in May 2022. Remarkably, despite his party trailing in national polls at the time, Perry successfully flipped a borough that voted for Labour in 2019. Having voted for Labour by a margin of 11pts in the last general election, Croydon voters opted for a Tory Mayor by 2pts. Perry thus overperformed his party by a whopping 13pts, putting him fifth in the local Mayor rankings.
There are three local Mayors in England who do not belong to one of the three major parties, making it difficult to quantify their electability relative to 2019. But Tower Hamlets deserves an honourable mention, not only because Aspire’s Lutfur Rahman beat Labour from the left, but because it is home to the most unelectable (former) Mayor in Britain: John Biggs.
Biggs served as Tower Hamlets Mayor from 2015 until 2022, with his party holding 90% of the council seats for 4 of those 7 years. Tower Hamlets is a strongly Labour borough, with the party winning the area by 55pts in 2019. Yet in 2022, Biggs ran for re-election and lost by 14pts to Aspire candidate Lutfur Rahman (whose party also won a council majority).
Biggs thus underperformed his party by a stunning 68pts, a worse performance than Joanne Anderson in Liverpool (-50pts). Biggs is one of only seven incumbent Mayors to be defeated for re-election, and one of only three Labour Mayors to ever lose.
In addition to Rahman, there are two sitting Mayors in England who won as independents: Mike Starkie of Copeland (who joined the Conservatives a year after being re-elected) and Andy Preston of Middlesborough. Both won by double-digit margins, with Preston beating Labour by 26pts in May 2019. Starkie’s position is being scrapped, as Copeland district council is being absorbed into a unitary authority; Preston is up for election in 2023.
So, after all that, who is the most electable Mayor – and who is the least?
I think we can confidently say that Peter Taylor (LD, Watford) is the most electable Mayor. His party lost the Parliamentary seat of Watford by 29pts in 2019, yet when Taylor ran in 2022 he won the district by 28pts – winning 55% of first preferences, avoiding a runoff entirely.
In terms of Metro Mayors, it’s arguably a toin-coss between Andy Burnham (Lab, Manchester) and Ben Houchen (Con, Tees Valley). Although Houchen overperformed his party by more than Burnham did, Houchen uniquely benefitted from only facing one opponent on the ballot (Labour). Burnham, meanwhile, faced six opponents and still won over two-thirds of first preferences. We can’t know for sure, but I would argue that if Burnham had only had a Tory opponent, he would have won well in excess of 70% of the vote. But purely on a mathematic basis, we have to give the title to Houchen (with Burnham a close second).
As for the least electable sitting Mayor, that title goes to Joanne Anderson of Liverpool – who came worryingly close to losing a Labour stronghold. The most unelectable Mayor in England, though, will probably always be John Biggs – an incumbent Labour Mayor who actually managed to lose by double-digits in a borough that voted Labour by 55pts in 2019.