The local election results in Bedford borough are symbolic of our dysfunctional electoral system and politics.
The long-serving directly elected Mayor – Dave Hodgson (Liberal Democrat) – was defeated by a mere 145 votes. The Mayoral winner was Conservative Tom Wooton.
It seems very strange that Bedfordians gets a Tory Mayor, with just 33.1% support, when two thirds of Bedford voters (65.1%) supported broadly ‘progressive’ candidates – Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens.
It becomes even more strange when you look at who was elected to the Council. The three progressive parties – Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens – took 30 of 46 seats (65%). Which is broadly in line with the votes cast for the Mayor.
The Tories only got 14 Councillors, which will make life very difficult for the new Mayor. He has weak immediate support on the Council to call on.
It is worth noting that individual ward level results run under our first past the post (FPTP) voting system can also be less representative of the voter’s preferences.
In Biddenham ward (next door to me), for example, they elected a Tory councillor with 442 votes. Under almost any form of Proportional Representation the Green party candidate, who got 423 votes, would probably have won. The combined Green, Labour and Lib Dem vote was 553.
The only way the progressive majority in Bedford can get a Mayor they can at least tolerate is to vote for another Party, other than the one they prefer – so-called ‘tactical voting’. If the Labour Party or Greens had encouraged this, Dave Hodgson would still be the Mayor.
It was not always thus. Directly elected Mayors were originally elected using the Supplementary Vote system – a form of proportional representation. It meant if no candidate got a majority, those with the lowest score were eliminated and their votes redistributed to their second choice until someone won.
A Supplementary Vote – or any other proportional representation system – would almost certainly have re-elected Dave Hodgson in Bedford. Labour and Green supporters would have given him enough second preferences to easily put him back in office. But the Tory government abolished this system in 2021, returning to the crude, and unrepresentative FPTP.
There is another question though: does Bedford need a directly elected Mayor anyway?
I have long been sceptical of the fashion for ‘presidential’ style politics – locally or nationally, so my view is not based on this one election. I argued back in 2015 against having a directly elected Mayor for Greater Manchester.
This ‘presidential’ style of local government is wrong in principle. It perpetuates the myth of the ‘strong leader’ who can solve everything. Such leaders are usually ineffective in a complex world that needs more deliberation and consensus to solve our big ‘wicked issues’. Concentrating power in one person’s hands does not do that.
Directly elected Mayors for single Councils were introduced in 2000. They are one of three possible arrangements:
- A directly elected Mayor, and Cabinet
- An appointed Leader and Cabinet
- A Committee system
It is also worth noting that – unlike so-called ‘Metro Mayors’ who cover more than one Council Area (like Labour’s Andy Burham in Manchester or the Conservative’s Andy Street in the West Midlands) – local elected Mayor’s get no additional powers or resources over and above those of the Council itself. So any benefits (or problems) come solely from how the Council is run internally.
Only a dozen or so of over 300 Councils in England opted for the elected Mayor, and since then several have reversed their decision: mayoralties have been abolished in Stoke-on-Trent (2009), Hartlepool (2013), Torbay (2019), and Bristol (as of 2024).
In a town as divided politically as Bedford, is it really a good idea to place too much power in the hands of one person? The Council itself is clearly more representative, despite the flaws of FPTP at ward level, than is the result of Mayoral election.
Maybe the citizen’s of Bedford will think again after this year’s bizarre Mayoral election result. They can, if they choose, force the Council back to a Leader and Cabinet or even a Committee system – my own preferred option. But for the moment my guess is there will be a lot of bemused Bedford voters wondering how they – with a Labour MP and a Labour-Lib Dem-Green dominated Council – ended up with a Tory Mayor?
More from East Anglia Bylines
We need your help!
The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month 🙏