Election Countdown

Will the Tories lose their mayoralties in May?

Ten city and metro mayors will be elected on 2nd May. A Conservative wipeout is unlikely—but possible

April 15, 2024
Andy Street is likely to lose the West Midlands mayoralty. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Andy Street is likely to lose the West Midlands mayoralty. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Neither Labour nor the Tories want to talk about it, but that doesn’t stop the rest of us. The Conservatives dread the prospect of a wipeout, while Labour fears that talk of a clean sweep will make falling just a little short look like failure.

The issue in question is the election of 10 city and metro mayors on 2nd May. Three weeks ago I discussed Sadiq Khan’s prospects in London. It would be astonishing if he lost; the only real doubt concerns the size of his majority. Labour should retain the mayoralty more comfortably in four contests in the north: Liverpool, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire. Labour should also win the inaugural election for mayor of the northeast, despite the intervention of Jamie Driscoll, the former Labour mayor of part of the region. He is standing as an independent, having failed to win Labour’s nomination. That accounts for six of the 10.

The real drama concerns the other four: two mayoralties being defended by the Conservatives, and two inaugural contests in areas where the Conservatives comfortably outpolled Labour in the general election four years ago. Could the Tories lose all four? Let’s take them in turn.

West Midlands. Andy Street, the former chief executive of John Lewis, has twice won the biggest prize outside London—a region with a population of almost three million. He followed up a narrow victory in 2017 with a more comfortable majority in 2021. (Until now mayors have been elected under the two-stage “supplementary vote” system. This year first-past-the-post rules apply; the past figures cited in this blog are first preferences.)

Street has benefitted from his personal appeal: his lead over Labour three years ago was better than that of his party in the same area in the 2019 general election. However, he was also helped by the Tories’ national popularity as Britain began to emerge from the horrors of Covid. Their average polling lead in early May 2021 was 8 per cent. The equivalent figure today is a Labour lead of 20 per cent. If that shift is matched by what happens in the West Midlands, Street would end up 19 points behind Richard Parker, his Labour opponent. 

That’s an over-simple calculation. Turnouts in mayoral elections are lower than in general elections. Not all of those who do vote back the same party in both. Not all parts of the country swing by the same amount. Street may have added to his personal reputation.

That said, for Street to defeat Parker would be a remarkable achievement. The likeliest outcome will be that the mayoralty will changes hands, albeit with a Labour majority of less than 19 per cent.

Tees Valley. This used to be solidly Labour territory. Ben Houchen’s victory was the most dramatic result of the 2017 local elections. The 2019 general election confirmed that this was not a freak result, but part of the “red wall” shift to the Tories in Labour’s former industrial heartlands.

However, Houchen’s re-election in 2021 was truly remarkable. He trounced Labour by 73-27 per cent. True, Labour was in the doldrums. On the same day, the Conservatives gained Hartlepool—one of the constituencies in Tees Valley—in a parliamentary byelection. But the scale of Houchen’s victory was testament to his own popularity.

Two months ago, an opinion poll showed Labour winning this time by two-to-one. This would represent one of the most stunning turnarounds in modern British politics. However, the poll named only the parties, not the candidates. It took no account of Houchen’s personal appeal.

Does that appeal still hold? Houchen’s reputation may have been damaged by controversies over plans to redevelop the site of the former steelworks in Redcar. Allegations were made of wrongdoing, including by Houchen. An official inquiry found no evidence of corruption or illegality; but it did conclude that “a number of decisions taken by the bodies involved… do not meet the standards expected when managing public funds”. In such situations, perceptions matter more than reality. If Houchen can persuade voters he acted properly throughout, he should be re-elected comfortably. If not, he could be in trouble. If he ends up winning narrowly, he will be grateful that Reform is not fielding a candidate, so won’t be able to syphon off right-wing voters from him.

East Midlands. A new mayor will be elected for the first time for the area that includes Nottingham and Derby, and some of the notable red wall constituencies captured by the Conservatives, including Bolsover, Mansfield and Ashfield (whose MP, Lee Anderson, has now defected to Reform).

In 2019, the Conservatives enjoyed an overall 14 per cent lead over Labour in the 22 constituencies in this area. Had the East Midlands already elected a mayor, they would have been a Tory. Labour’s candidate, Claire Ward, was a minister in the Blair/Brown years and the highly regarded MP for Watford. If she wins on 2nd May, it would effectively be a Labour gain. As things stand, Labour’s national polling lead, and its strong performance in last year’s local elections in the East Midlands, mean that she should win this inaugural contest. However, it could be close.

York and North Yorkshire. Another inaugural contest, this time in an area that is normally strongly Conservative. In the last general election, the Tories led Labour by 29 per cent. However, within the area, Labour overturned a much larger majority, 36 per cent, in the Selby & Ainsty byelection last June. Its winning margin was 12 per cent. The same swing next month would give Labour’s David Skaith a comfortable victory.

That would be terrible news for the Tory party—and also Rishi Sunak personally. He is one of the area’s local MPs. His own majority of more than 24,000 (on the new boundaries) would be vulnerable. However, it’s unusual for huge swings in parliamentary byelections to be matched in elections to run districts, counties and regions. Moreover, there is no Reform candidate to attract Yorkshire’s right-wing voters. The new mayor is more likely to be the Conservatives’ Keane Duncan, a former leader of Ryedale Council and Daily Star journalist.

All in all, the likeliest tally for next month’s 10 mayoral contests is Conservative two (Tees Valley and North Yorkshire), Labour eight (the rest). This would confirm that Labour is in course for victory in the coming general election but not a landslide. If the Conservatives can win three or four (which would mean winning one or both of the Midlands contests), then this would indicate that all is not yet lost for them in red wall England. On the other hand, if Labour wins nine, it deserves to open the bubbly—and if it does achieve a clean sweep, make that vintage champagne.