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Riding the wave of devolution

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local elections

As  the former Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, uploaded a reflective picture of himself tackling a ‘literal mountain’ rather than a ‘metaphorical one’, following his close defeat at the weekend, the country appears to be entering  a period of reflection of its own as it considers the risks and opportunities of devolving political power from Westminster.

In her weekend FT article, the former Tory policy adviser Camilla Cavendish argued that while some regional mayors such as Mr Street might have proven to be beneficial for their respective areas, these examples are very specific and few and far between. Cavendish claims that questions should now be asked about their value for money and accountability, particularly set against a bleak backdrop of local authorities facing bankruptcy.

In contrast, the political commentator Trevor Philips used his Sunday Times article to highlight the transformative impact of mayoralties on British politics in recent decades. Philips praises the likes of Andy Burnham, Ben Houchen, Tracy Brabin and Andy Street as people who have not been ensnared by partisan politics and have a real sense of place over party.

The results do indicate a willingness among voters to prioritise local concerns over party affiliations. For instance, Andy Street came within a mere 1,500 votes in the same West Midlands electoral area where the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner was 70,000 votes behind his Labour counterpart. Likewise, Ben Houchen hung on to the Tees Valley mayoralty despite the Conservatives having a torrid time in Hartlepool – the only local authority holding an election in his region.

The London election results could also serve as a further validation of this perspective. If voters replicate the borough election results at national level, the Conservatives could be wiped out in many constituencies. The mayoral results did not, however, follow a similar path.  Whether the Tory candidate Susan Hall outperformed the Conservative party, or whether Labour’s Sadiq Khan underperformed compared to the Labour Party, the key observation at this level remains: voters in local political contests are increasingly factoring in the strength of individual candidates rather than blindly following a particular party.

Yesterday’s 25th anniversary of the first 'Welsh Assembly' election provided another opportunity to reflect on the advantages and drawbacks of devolution. While a significant proportion of the electorate in Wales remain opposed to the Senedd, the Welsh Government's steps to increase the number of MSs from 60 to 96 in the upcoming election show that the devolution experiment still has further to go.  

The past 25 years of devolution have been dominated by Welsh Labour. Opposition parties in Cardiff Bay may look at the recent mayoral results to establish a strategy to break this stranglehold. We’re yet to see an Andy Burnham-esque figure emerge in Wales. In Greater Manchester, Burnham used his acceptance speech at the weekend to assert independence from a future Labour government, whereas the new First Minister of Wales Vaughan Gething has taken every opportunity to be seen as laying out the red carpet for a Labour government in Westminster. A charismatic ‘place over party’ figure who would challenge this political landscape could have a big impact in Wales.

With the SNP also electing a new leader in John Swinney, the bank holiday weekend certainly cast a far-reaching spotlight on the intricate dynamics of UK devolution. The mayoral results across England and the plans to enlarge membership of the Senedd would suggest that political enthusiasm for devolution does not appear to be waning, with the electorate looking for individuals who transcend party politics and prioritise local interests.