The eight Combined Authority (“Metro”) Mayor elections in May 2021 were some of Labour’s most successful of the cycle. Despite poor results elsewhere, Labour managed to pick up two mayoralties directly from the Conservatives (West of England and Cambridgeshire) and a third newly created position (West Yorkshire). The gains ended up being overshadowed, partly because of the Labour leadership’s insistence on focussing on the so-called “Red Wall” as the only metric of success, but new data shows significant numbers of defections to Labour across the eight contests.
Wave 21 of the British Election Study includes individual vote data across recent elections, allowing us to track how 2019 voters voted in the 2021 Metro Mayor elections. The combined results (which are heavily skewed towards London followed by the West Midlands as the largest regions) are plotted below:
Labour made significant gains from the Liberal Democrats, around a third of their 2019 vote, and more limited gains from the Conservatives, around 7% of their 2019 vote. Once flows in both directions are accounted for, defections from the Liberal Democrats accounted for around 2.4% in the first round and 4.4% in the second round, while Conservative defections counted for 0.4% and 0.6% respectively.
Meanwhile Labour disproportionately lost to the Green Party and “Did Not Vote”. Of these, defections to the Green Party were less consequential because Green voters disproportionately supported Labour in the second round. These defections cost Labour around 3% in the first round but net benefitted them around 0.9% in the second round. Losses to “Did Not Vote” were likely more costly, with almost a quarter of the Labour vote not turning out in the BES sample, which significantly under-represents non-voters.
Because of the small sample sizes, it is not possible to plot all of the combined authority contests individually, but patterns can be seen in some of the larger regions. The following plots should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt because of large confidence intervals which can’t easily be shown on an alluvial plot:
The London flows look similar to the combined figures above. However, Sadiq Khan experienced a net loss of Labour 2019 voters to Shaun Bailey. This stands in stark contrast to coverage of the campaign, which suggested Bailey was a liability for the Conservatives. Around 4.9% of Labour’s 2019 voters supported Shaun Bailey in the first round, compared with 4.3% of Conservatives supporting Sadiq Khan. With Labour voters making up a large majority in the capital, this means a significant net flow to Bailey.
The West Midlands is another region where Labour had a net loss to the Conservatives. Combined with a smaller 2019 vote and fewer Lib Dems and Greens to squeeze, Conservative Andy Street had a relatively straightforward reelection. Here, 10% of Labour’s 2019 vote voted Conservative in the first round, compared with only 2.5% of 2019 Conservatives going the other way.
The picture in Greater Manchester is much more positive for Labour, with Andy Burnham winning significant crossover support from both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Burnham won almost 21% of 2019 Conservative voters while less than 2% went the other way. For me, this is probably one of the most striking stats from these plots.
Finally, there is the newly created West Yorkshire combined authority. Here, the unknown quantity is the Yorkshire Party. There has been some debate on Twitter over whether the Yorkshire Party draws primarily from Labour or Conservative voters, and the BES data lends some tentative support to the idea that the party draws disproportionately from the Conservatives. Around 6-13% of 2019 Conservatives voted for the Yorkshire Party candidate in the first round, compared with 2-7% of 2019 Labour voters. The relative percentages are within the margin of error but the Yorkshire Party is clearly not dominated by former Labour voters like the Green Party is.
Tracy Brabin (the first woman to ever serve as a Metro Mayor) achieved a slight advantage in terms of Labour-Conservative switchers, followed by securing most of the substantial Green vote in the second round to win by an emphatic 20% margin.
The four other contests (Merseyside, West of England, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and Tees Valley) do not have enough respondents for accurate flow plots. There is some suggestion from the data that Ben Houchen won a significant share of Labour’s 2019 vote in Tees Valley, while Labour won significantly more defections in West of England and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. The West of England and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough also saw impressive levels of coordination between “progressive” voters, to deliver two Labour gains.
Overall, the Metro Mayor elections were some of Labour’s most successful of May 2021. It was a great failure by Keir Starmer and his team that these victories were clouded over by the Hartlepool by-election, disappointing council results, and a botched reshuffle, which stole the headlines as the news of Labour’s new Metro Mayors were announced.