In just over two weeks, voters across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough will go to the polls to choose the first mayor of the new Combined Authority for the area, a fresh new layer of local government with powers over transport and housing policy. Here is a look at the prospects for the election.
At first glance, standing as a candidate for the Combined Authority Mayor area is a pretty daunting undertaking. The Authority’s area covers seven Parliamentary constituencies, stretches over 1,300 square miles from Wisbech in the north to the outskirts of Royston in the south, and is home to around 600,000 registered voters. That’s an awful lot of doors to knock on. Neither is it cheap – as well as the £5,000 deposit required in order to stand, the election spending limit is around £50,000.
The election is being held under the Supplementary Vote system, which gives each voter a first and second choice vote. If no candidate gets more than half of the first choice votes, then the two top candidates go through to a second round. All the other candidates are eliminated, and the second-choice votes from their ballot papers are added to the totals of the remaining two candidates to decide the final result. This means that the candidate who is placed second on first-choice votes can still win if they get enough transferred votes from the eliminated candidates.
Each household in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough will shortly be sent a booklet about the election, including an election statement from each of the candidates. The booklet is available online here, and I’ve reproduced each candidate’s statement below – click them for a larger view.
Before reviewing the field, I should add my usual disclaimer that I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats, and while I’m trying to give an impartial view of the election, members of other parties might see things differently. On, then, to the candidates, in the order they will appear on the ballot paper:
Paul Bullen, UKIP
Paul is the UKIP group leader on Cambridgeshire County Council, where he currently represents St Ives. As well as seeking the Mayoralty, he is also standing for re-election to the County Council, though for the new seat of Warboys & The Stukeleys, which includes his home village of Little Stukeley near Huntingdon. In recent elections UKIP have been strongest in the north of Cambridgeshire, particularly in Fenland and Huntingdonshire, but have struggled to make an electoral impact in Cambridge.
Rod Cantrill, Lib Dem
Rod is City Councillor for Newnham ward in Cambridge, which he has represented since 2004, and where he lives. As well as being a City Councillor, Rod is a partner in a firm that advises on mergers and acquisitions. He played a leading role in the Cambridge Lib Dem fundraising effort before the last General Election, which garnered over £230,000 in donations in 2014 and 2015. Traditionally the Lib Dems have been strongest in Cambridge and nearby areas in the south of the County, but have struggled to make an impact in northern districts, particularly Fenland.
Peter Dawe, Independent
Peter Dawe is a Cambridgeshire businessman perhaps best known as an Internet entrepreneur in the 1990s. He lives in the village of Stuntney near Ely. At the 2013 County Council elections he stood as a UKIP candidate, but he is contesting the mayoralty as an Independent. His campaign has advocated a wide range of policies including using Twitter polls for local decision making, on-demand shuttle minibuses, and building thousands of modular homes in a factory in Fenland.
Stephen Goldspink, English Democrats
Previously a Conservative councillor in Peterborough, Stephen Goldspink won 8% of the vote for the English Democrats in the inaugural Cambridegshire and Peterborough Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2012. He gained press coverage earlier in the mayoral campaign by inviting Donald Trump to visit Cambridgeshire. He lives in the small village of Turves near Whittlesea.
Julie Howell, Green
Julie is the only female candidate for Mayor, and the only one to live in Peterborough. She is a Parish Councillor in two Peterborough parishes, and stood for election to Peterborough City Council last year, finishing fifth in a three-member ward. She works as a Communication and Confidence Coach, and is leader of the Green Party in Peterborough. Like the Lib Dems, the Green Party is strongest in and around Cambridge.
James Palmer, Conservative
James is currently the leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, and lives in Soham, where he represents the Soham North ward. He was selected as the Conservative candidate in January, ahead of County Council leader Steve Count, and St Neots councillor Roger Harrison. The Conservatives have long been the strongest party across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and James is widely regarded as the front runner in the Mayoral contest.
Kevin Price, Labour
Kevin is Labour City Councillor for King’s Hedges ward in Cambridge, and lives just off Milton Road in the north of the city. He works as a college porter at Clare College, and on the City Council is Deputy Leader and Executive Councillor for Housing. Labour is currently strongest in Cambridge, where it has a large majority on the City Council, and has also performed fairly well in Peterborough, but has less support in more rural areas.
So who is likely to win? The Conservative candidate is certainly strongly placed. Here is a summary from Wikipedia of the General Election results in Cambridgeshire over the last 20 years:
As you can see, even in Labour’s 1997 landslide, Cambridgeshire returned a majority of Conservative MPs. A slightly more nuanced picture emerges from this map of the most recent local election result in each area (from Nudge Factory):
However, blue is still the most prevalent colour. Could the Conservatives win in the first round by gaining more than half of the first-choice votes? I think the chances of this are pretty remote, and it’s much more likely that the contest will go to a second round between the top two candidates. Who, then, will the second candidate be? Given the electoral history, I don’t think it will be the English Democrat Stephen Goldspink, or Green candidate Julie Howell. Could Independent candidate Peter Dawe make it through? In these turbulent political times we can’t entirely rule it out, but my instincts are against – although his campaign is well-resourced and certainly has plenty of ideas, I don’t think it is having sufficient impact across the large election area to compete effectively against the battle-hardened party organisations. Neither do I expect UKIP’s Paul Bullen to make the final two – with their key objective achieved nationally, UKIP seem to be something of a fading force, and have never been very effective at running election campaigns in any case. So I think the second place will be filled either by Labour’s Kevin Price or Lib Dem Rod Cantrill.
Labour’s campaign literature has been featuring the following bar chart prominently:
This shows the first-round result of last year’s Police and Crime Commissioner election, which was contested across the same area and with the same voting system as this year’s mayoral contest. In last year’s second round, Labour’s Dave Baigent went on to score 47% against 53% for the victorious candidate, Conservative Jason Ablewhite. So is this a reasonable guide to this year’s likely result? Well, perhaps; however, nationally, opinion polls have developed not necessarily to Labour’s advantage in the last year:
The graph above (from Wikipedia) shows the national opinion poll standings over the last two years (Con, Lab, UKIP, Lib Dem, SNP and Green from top to bottom). The most noticeable feature is the yawning gap that has opened up between Conservative and Labour since the Brexit referendum. While UKIP have faded slightly, there has been only a small rise in the standing of the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems, however, point to their strong performance nationally in Council by-elections, where they have made regular gains, often on very large vote swings, and also to the odds that Ladbrokes are offering on the mayoral contest:
Lib Dems have been featuring these odds in their literature to establish themselves as the main challenger. Some Labour supporters have suggested that the Lib Dems have been placing bets to influence the odds in their favour, but as far as I know this is unfounded – and in any case the odds were pretty similar when betting first opened.
In a sense it doesn’t really matter to the anti-Conservative voter which of Lib Dem and Labour is the main challenger – they can simply give their first choice vote to one and their second choice vote to the other, and either way their vote will go to the anti-Conservative candidate in the second round. However, this is a complex message to get across to an electorate used to the tactical arguments of First Past the Post elections.
I think it’s virtually certain that the Lib Dems will perform more strongly in the Mayoral election than they did in last year’s Police & Crime Commissioner contest; I’m sure last year’s Lib Dem candidate, Rupert Moss-Eccardt, will forgive me for describing his campaign as low-key. In contrast, Rod Cantrill’s campaign is doing a great deal of leaflet delivery and canvassing. It’s also noteworthy that Rod’s campaign organiser is James Lillis, who also organised the campaign behind the dramatic Lib Dem by-election win in Richmond Park last October. Will the Lib Dems manage to overhaul Labour and take second place in the first round? And in any case, can the non-Conservative candidate get enough vote transfers to win? We’ll find out at the election count on Friday 5th May, a little over two weeks from now.