Turnout in none of the eleven 2021 Mayoral elections came close to 50%+1.The electorate shunned the opportunity to participate. (see Addendum) Does this affect the legitimacy of the result?
Let’s imagine an election in fictional Loncaster which has an electorate of 100,000. The election is properly conducted. Voters are registered and provision is made for postal votes. On election day there are polling booths open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. However, only three electors vote and two votes is sufficient to win in a landslide victory of 67%. This is a reductio ad absurdem but argument but it make a serious point. Does it matter how many voters vote as long as the election is properly conducted?
In Doncaster 72% abstained, leaving 28% of votes split between seven candidates.1 Ros Jones won a comfortable victory. She was, however, only endorsed by 13.7% of the actual electorate. 86.3% rejected her either actively or passively. Ros had 43.8% of those voting and finally won on preference votes. In the imaginary borough of Loncaster the winner won with 67% of the vote. Is Ros’s victory a better victory than the winner in Loncaster?
In Greater Manchester Andy Burnham won an outright majority without preference votes.2 Abstentions amounted to 67.3% of the electorate and the remaining 34.7% was divided between nine candidates. Andy received 67.3% of 34.7% or, 23% of the total electorate. 77% of the electorate rejected him either actively or passively. In the imaginary borough of Loncaster the winner succeeded with about 67% of the vote the same as Andy’s ‘landslide’. Is Andy’s victory a better victory than the imaginary winner in Loncaster?
Ros Jones and Andy Burnham were trounced. Respectively the figures are Jones 13.7% against 86.7% and for Andy Burnham 23% against 77%. These are crushing defeats. But, of course, they won exactly like our candidate in the imaginary borough of Loncaster. The legitimacy of British democracy lies in the mechanism of the vote not in the underlying principles of democracy. Andy has drawn the obvious conclusion and now supports changes in the voting system3 to a version of proportional representation.
There are many explanations for the decline in voter participation in local elections. When speculating on this issue, consideration of the centralisation of government is a good starting point. In the Victorian era local government was vibrant. Confident local politicians enhanced their communities. A visible statement of the confidence of Victorian politicians are the mass ive town halls which make a wonderful statement about their cities. 21st century politicians are managers. They’re a conduit for central government policies. And local government is dramatically underfunded. Ambition died with centralisation. All of which leads to the entirely reasonable question: what is local government for?
Addendum: Turnout for eleven Mayoral Elections 2021 (figures rounded)
Bristol 41%; Cambridgeshire and Peterborough 37%; Doncaster 28%; Greater Manchester 35%; Liverpool 30%; Liverpool Region 30%; North Tynside 40%; Salford 29%; Tees Valley 34%; West Midlands 31% finally West of England 37%