It will be close but I am predicting that the Conservatives will hold onto the West England Combined Authority Metropolitan Mayoralty on 6th May 2021. By rights, they should not be winning but the 3 parties opposing them do not seem to understand the subtleties of the Supplementary Vote (SV) that is used in this election and they will end up splitting their votes to their detriment.
This will be my first ever forecast of a local election and it’s the combination of the Supplementary Vote system and local conditions that make the West England area different from other areas that use SV for Mayoral elections that motivated me to do it as well as the fact that I live here! Those who have followed my election forecasting blogs will know that I was deemed the most accurate forecaster of the 2019 UK General Election beating even John Curtice’s exit poll. That means the only way forward for me now is downhill …
Update 9th May 2021 – my reflections on the results and how well my forecast did can be found in a series of tweets linked to at the end of this article.
What is the West England Combined Authority?
WECA consists of 3 unitary authorities, B&NES (Bath & North East Somerset), Bristol and S.Gloucs (South Gloucestershire). In turn each authority maps perfectly to a number of parliamentary constituencies with 2 in B&NES, 4 in Bristol and 3 in S.Gloucs thus giving WECA a total of 9 seats. As the map shows, the Bristol conurbation is dominant but Bath is by no means overawed.
When WECA was formed, the unitary authority of North Somerset (with 2 parliamentary constituencies) was invited to join but they declined. Had they done so, this would have resulted in the resurrection of the locally hated Avon County Council.
Update 5th May 2021 – I have since discovered that N.Somerset are in discussions about joining WECA but a political row has prevented this from happening in time for the 2021 elections.
How has WECA voted since 2010?
WECA is a politically diverse area. Since 2010, 6 parties have come first in the vote in seats or authorities across the 4 general elections, 3 EU related elections and 3 local elections where all 3 authorities voted at the same time.
It should be noted that B&NES & S.Gloucs elect the entire council every 4 years (last time in 2019 when the Lib Dems gained B&NES from the Conservatives and the Conservatives retained S.Gloucs). Bristol now does the same (Labour gained control in 2016 from No Overall Control) and is holding local elections this year (delayed from 2020) but until 2015, elections took place every year with 1/3 of councillors up for election.
The combined vote shares across the whole of WECA for the last 4 general elections, last 3 EU related elections and the 2017 Mayoral elections are shown in this table. The general elections have seen all 3 major parties come first at least once and the 2 EU elections saw UKIP & the Greens come first. WECA voted Remain in 2016 but not overwhelmingly so. Note the two local elections of 2015 & 2011 are not shown because of the multi-member vote system used in local elections means it is difficult to calculate totals across the 3 unitary authorities.
In other words, out of 7 elections contested by political parties, WECA has voted for 5 different parties as number 1!
A feature I find useful in today’s political climate is to add together the vote shares of the Leave supporting parties of Conservatives, Brexit Party, UKIP and BNP which appears under the LV column. I repeat this for the Remain supporting parties of Labour, Liberal Democrats & Greens which appears under the RM column.
Update 5th May 2021 – I received a Lib Dem leaflet through my letter box stating that they have more councillors in WECA than any other party. The Lib Dems are known for their dodgy bar charts but this is actually correct for a change! They have 63 compared to 57 for Conservatives, 53 for Labour (4 have stood down and are vacant), 11 for Green and 6 Independents. Breakdown across the 3 unitaries are –
- B&NES – LD 37 CON 11 LAB 5 IND 6. I believe a Conservative councillor defected to the Lib Dems subsequently.
- Bristol – LAB 37 CON 14 LD 8 GRN 11
- S.Gloucs – CON 33 LD 17 LAB 11
Data Sources – my prime source for general & EU elections is the House of Commons Research library sometimes supplemented with data from British Election Survey and the Electoral Commission. For local elections, I use Wikipedia which usually uses the local authority itself as the original data source.
What happened in the 2017 Metro Mayor Election?
In 2017, the Conservative candidate, Tim Bowles, was elected as the first ever Mayor of WECA under the Supplementary Vote (SV) system
A supplementary vote allows a voter to vote for a 1st & 2nd preference though they are not required to give a 2nd preference. In Round 1, 1st preferences are totalled for each candidate and if any candidate gets 50% or more of the votes, they win the election. If not, the top 2 candidates go through to Round 2 and the remaining candidates are eliminated. In Round 2, the 2nd preferences of the eliminated candidates are totalled if they have voted for either of the two candidates who made it through to Round 2 and these are added to the 1st preferences the top 2 received in Round 1. Whichever of the top 2 has the most combined 1st & 2nd preferences wins the election.
Results are counted for each of the 3 unitary authorities that make up WECA but the decisions on elimination after Round 1, etc only take place at the WECA total level. That is why in both B&NES & S.Gloucs, the Labour candidate received 2nd preference votes in those authorities even though he was not in the top 2 in those authorities. The same thing happened to the Conservative candidate who was not in the top 2 in Bristol. Bristol in fact accounted for half of all votes across WECA.
For transparency, I am a registered voter living in B&NES. Since I am an Independent Statistician, I do not normally state how I vote. In this instance, I will state that my 1st preference went to the Independent candidate in 2017 and I correctly predicted that the top 2 candidates would be the Conservative & Labour candidates but I won’t say which one I gave my 2nd preference to.
Who is standing in 2021?
In 2021, there are only 4 candidates representing the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Green party. The current mayor is not seeking re-election and so the Conservative candidate is not an incumbent. Both the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates are former government ministers. The independent candidate from 2017 has endorsed the Labour candidate for 2021.
With that in mind, I have updated the WECA vote shares table shown earlier showing what the 1st round vote shares were among the 160k voters who gave their 1st preferences to the 4 parties standing again in 2021.
What do the latest polls say?
As far as I am aware, there have not been any polling for this election. The latest national opinion polls show the Conservatives and Labour at broadly the same level as they were for the 2019 general election, the Liberal Democrats down 4pts and the Greens up 3pts. If I compare the latest polls with May 2017, the Conservatives are down 4 pts, Labour up 5pts, Lib Dems down 2pts and Greens up 2pts.
It’s hard to say if any of these national poll changes hold any meaning for this election especially since there are only 4 candidates this time compared to 6 last time. I would say the strongest indication from the polls is that the Green vote nationally is roughly double where it was in 2017 & 2019.
How can the Conservatives lose in 2021?
Given the lack of polling data, the approach I’ve taken to forecasting this election is to work backwards from a Conservative victory in 2021 given they won the last election and ask myself, what would need to change for them to lose the race this time. Once I know how much things need to change, I can then decide if such changes are likely or unlikely.
One of the key points to note about SV in WECA is that only 39% of the votes of the 4 eliminated candidates after Round 1 in 2017 ended up being reallocated to either the Conservative or Labour candidate based on their 2nd preferences. There are two reasons why votes for eliminated candidates do not get reallocated. The first is that the voter did not give a 2nd preference. This data is not available for WECA but this link for the London 2016 Mayor race suggests that over half of voters for eliminated candidates did not give a 2nd preference. The second reason is that a person voting for an eliminated candidate gave their 2nd preference to another eliminated candidate.
I noticed that the % of eliminated votes being reallocated to the top 2 candidates in 2017 was quite consistent over the 3 unitary authorities despite their voting patterns being different. The figures were –
- 36% for B&NES where top 3 candidates were CON-LD-LAB
- 40% for Bristol where top 3 candidates were LAB-LD-CON
- 40% for S.Gloucs where top 3 candidates were CON-IND-LD
- 37% for the 2016 Bristol Mayor election.
I am going make this % is a hard number in my forecast i.e. of the total number votes in Round 1 for whichever 2 of the 4 candidates standing that get eliminated, only 40% will end up being reallocated. But how many votes will the 2 eliminated candidates get? By definition, since there are 4 candidates, the sum of the vote for the top 2 candidates must exceed 50% and the sum of the votes for the 2 eliminated candidates must be below 50%.
To demonstrate what needs to happens for the Conservatives to lose, I have created 4 scenarios as shown below, all of which assume the following –
- Conservative vote share is same as 2017 and come 1st in round 1
- Labour come 2nd in round 1. The scenarios I am demonstrating do not change if I assume either the Greens or Lib Dems come 2nd instead.
- Liberal Democrats & Greens are eliminated after round 1 & 40% of their votes give 2nd preferences for either Labour or Conservatives.
In scenario 1 I assume Labour vote share is also the same as 2017 and then increase this by 2 points in each of the next 3 scenarios i.e. from 27% to 29%, 31% & 33%. In round 2, I have then worked out for each scenario what the minimum vote share Labour needs to win the election.
It should be no surprise, the closer Labour is to the Conservatives, the lower the vote share needed in round 2 for them to win. However, the sensitivity of the relationship between the CON-LAB lead in round 1 and the LAB share in round 2 may be more than you might expect. That is because of the low proportion (40%) of the eliminated candidates whose 2nd preferences end being included in round 2. In addition, the higher the combined vote share of the top 2 candidates, the lower the combined vote share of eliminated candidates whose 2nd preferences come into play. You can see in the 4 scenarios how the total number of votes in round 2 falls as the Labour vote share increases.
Which is the most likely scenario in 2021?
This is the scenario I am going with which is not a forecast as such, more a minimum of what needs to happen for the Conservatives to retain the mayoralty. In my opinion, a scenario more favourable to the Conservatives than this is more likely than a less favourable scenario which would cause them to lose.
My reasoning for this is as follows.
- The Conservatives will come 1st with at least 35% of the vote.
- In 2017, there were two additional candidates (IND & UKIP). I find it plausible that at least half of these voters will favour the Conservatives in 2021 so 34% is a minimum.
- In the last 2 high turnout general elections with First Past The Post election systems, the “Leave” vote share column shows 40%.
- In the last 2 low turnout elections with different elections systems (EU19 & MY17-r1), the “Leave” vote share column shows 34% & 35%.
- Polls show no discernable declines for the Conservatives since the last election.
- Finally they are the only party standing from the right-wing of the political spectrum.
- Labour will come 2nd with an improved vote share on 2017.
- How much of an improved vote share is hard to say. Obviously the higher it is, the more likely they are to win.
- The reason I see them 2nd and not 1st in round 1 is because of the vote splitting that occurs with both Lib Dems and Greens standing.
- For me, the Greens are the unknown factor here and if national polls are correct they could do very well and may even be 2nd.
- Bear in mind the Greens topped the EU19 poll in the last WECA election with a low turnout and different election system.
- National polls also show most new Green voters are coming from Labour.
- It’s this Green unknown that makes me think it unlikely that Labour will come 1st in round 1.
- If Labour did come first on round 1 then they will win round 2 with ease.
- The Conservatives will get at least 1/3 of 2nd preferences
- Here is another big unknown.
- In 2017, the Conservatives got 43% of 2nd preferences but back then, they plausibly came from the eliminated UKIP & IND candidates.
- Indeed, in each of the 3 unitary authorities, the Conservatives 2nd preferences were roughly twice that of the UKIP 1st preferences.
- By the same token, Labour’s 2nd preferences were equal to the Green’s 1st preferences in all 3 unitary authorities.
- So I do expect the Conservatives to get a lower share of 2nd preferences in 2021 vs 2017.
- But a factor in favour of the Conservatives is that the 3 opposition parties do not understand the subtleties of SV and could hurt themselves as I explain in the next section
Why the opposition doesn’t understand SV?
My chosen scenario assumes that Labour will come 2nd. Do Liberal Democrats & Green voters know this? Have they been told to give their 2nd preferences to Labour in anticipation of round 2? If they haven’t then Labour won’t win enough 2nd preferences to win.
Here is the problem with SV in an electoral region where all 4 parties have topped the poll at some point in the past. It is hard to voters to guess which 2 parties will come top in round 1 and vote their 2nd preferences accordingly. In areas like the West Midlands or London, voters should know that Labour & Conservatives will be the top 2 parties. They can then vote for whichever candidate they like best in round 1 and then choose the least worst of Labour & Conservatives for round 2.
But in WECA, the Greens have a decent chance of 2nd place in my opinion based on current polls. So it would make sense for the Greens to tell their voters to give their 2nd preferences to Labour and for Labour to tell their voters to give their 2nd preferences to the Greens. However, the Lib Dems have chosen an ex-minster as a candidate, they are in control of B&NES so what happens if the Lib Dem comes 2nd? Then Labour & Greens will have ended up with mutually assured destruction with none of their 2nd preferences counting and yet again the Conservatives are home and dry.
It is an axiom under first past the post that vote splitting can cost you the seat. Under SV, vote splitting continues to cast its shadow in the 2nd preferences when it is unclear which candidate will be in the top 2. What should have happened here is that if the 3 opposition parties were determined to oust the Conservatives, one of them should have stood down for this election. Of course, that is easy for me to say and extremely hard for the 3 parties to agree upon. So yet again, the Conservatives win because the opposition are not taking into account the subtleties of SV.
My WECA21 Forecast – Summary
By now, your head may be spinning as you try to digest all the features of the West England Combined Authority Mayoral Election of 2021 under the Supplementary Vote System so let me summarise the key points.
- WECA is much more politically diverse than other areas of the UK.
- Out of the last 7 WECA-wide elections (General, European, Local), no fewer than 5 parties have come first in vote share.
- CON in GE15, GE19 & round 1 of last Mayoral election in 2017.
- LAB in GE17
- LD in GE10
- UKIP in EU14
- Greens in EU19
- If we look at each of the 3 unitary authorities that make up WECA, 6 parties have come first in at least one election since 2010.
- B&NES is usually topped by either LD or CON.
- Bristol is usually topped by LAB but has seen LD & GRN topping the poll.
- S. Gloucs is usually topped by CON but has seen BXP & UKIP top polls.
- I expect the Conservatives to top the 1st round poll with at least 35% of the vote.
- I expect Labour to come 2nd in round 1 with around 30% of the vote.
- If not Labour, then I think it more likely to be the Greens coming 2nd rather than the Lib Dems based on current national polling trends which show the Green vote about twice where they were in 2019.
- History shows that at most 40% of the votes from the eliminated parties after round 1 have their 2nd preferences counted in round 2.
- This figure was consistent across the 3 unitary authorities in 2017 even though, each authority voted differently in terms of 1st, 2nd & 3rd placed candidates.
- The Conservatives only need a 1/3 of the 2nd preferences to win and they got 43% in 2017.
- I think this is eminently achievable since it is not clear to LAB, LD & GRN voters which party they should be giving their 2nd preferences to.
- In part that is because of WECA’s diverse history that gives all 3 opposition parties a plausible chance of being in the top 2.
- The effect is that not only are they splitting the anti-Tory vote in the 1st round, they are also splitting the vote in the 2nd round and it seems that the 3 opposition parties do not understand this.
UPDATE 9th May 2021 – What happened?
Labour ended up winning easily so my forecast went down the pan! A series of tweets here explain why this happened.
- First clue that Labour would win based on the Police & Crime Commissioner results counted the day before.
- My reaction after 1st preferences were counted showing Labour would win easily in round 2.
- My review of why my forecast was wrong.
- Updated graphic of WECA voting history.
- An informative thread by Ant Breach on the WECA result which I replied to comparing Mayor vs PCC results.
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