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By Frank McKenna

By Frank McKenna

Mayors on the march

The latest local election contests are proof that devolution and elected mayors are working. Frank McKenna explains why.

Writing this blog on Thursday afternoon, I am having to make some assumptions about what the results of the local council and mayoral elections are going to be.

I am confident in predicting a Labour gain from the Tories in the Blackpool South by-election. I also think Labour will gain control of councils such as Dudley and Hartlepool – indeed, I’d expect the Conservatives to lose around 400 local authority seats, most, though not all, to Labour.

All this is bad news for Rishi Sunak and the government. However, the saving grace for the Tories could come in a couple of mayoral contests, the results of which we will not know until Saturday morning.

In Tees Valley, Conservative incumbent Ben Houchen – who won the mayoralty with a whopping 75% of the vote back in 2020 – should hold his position. In the West Midlands, in a much closer contest, the current mayor Andy Street, going for his third term of office, could well achieve an unlikely hat-rick of victories.

Even with the thumping majority Houchen is sitting on, there is little doubt that in ordinary circumstances, with Labour 20% ahead in national polls, and expecting to make huge gains across the North East in a General Election, he would be in ‘squeaky bum’ territory as he seeks re-election. Street, who won by a much tighter margin four years ago, would be toast.

However, devolution and the emergence of mayors as political champions of their city-regions, and big political personalities in their own right, actually means that both of them could well win a further term in office.

No doubt Conservative central office will be popping the champagne corks if one or both men win, but in reality, their success owes little to the Tory Party, and even less to Sunak and his government. Indeed, both Houchen and Street have done as much as they possibly can to distance themselves from the Conservative brand throughout their respective campaigns.

Indeed, Andy Street carried an endorsement in his eve of poll literature from former PM Boris Johnson – a kick in the goolies for his successor but one if ever there were one.

The fact is that the success of Houchen and Street is much better news for those like me who have advocated more devolution, and powerful mayors, for years, than it is for the government.

The march of mayors continues – ten will be in situ after the weekend – and it is clear from this set of polls that big regional political beasts, seen as having genuine influence by the electorate, can shake off the woes of their national colleagues, and still have a chance of an election victory. That puts extra wind in the sails of devolutionists- and will put the fear of Christ up many Whitehall mandarins!

A final point on the local polls. Try and avoid the spin and the noise from the parties. Look at what the national swing is across the country, and that will tell you if the polling forecasts that have been indicating a Labour landslide in the forthcoming General Election is likely or not. In terms of other mayoral seats to keep half an eye on – see York and North Yorkshire, the East Midlands, and watch for how big, or small, Sadiq Khan’s majority is in London.

Downtown in Business