Most local voters can't name Tracy Brabin or Ben Houchen as their mayors, new polling suggests

Mayoral powers are increasing – but most of the public can’t name their local one. Chris Burn reports.

At the recent Convention of the North in Leeds, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove claimed the region was being given a political “power surge” – fuelled by its mayors.

Mr Gove announced extra powers for the mayors of West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and the Liverpool City Region respectively to go with those already in operation in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and promised to provide the same responsibilities to the Tees Valley.

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"In real terms it means more money and a bigger capacity to make a difference,” he explained of the greater say being given to the likes of Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Steve Rotheram in areas such as skills, transport and housing.

Tracy Brabin is pictured at the Tetley, Leeds in 2022Tracy Brabin is pictured at the Tetley, Leeds in 2022
Tracy Brabin is pictured at the Tetley, Leeds in 2022

Mr Gove also highlighted the imminent election of a York and North Yorkshire mayor from this May and the ongoing talks to bring the posts to Hull and East Yorkshire as well as Greater Lincolnshire from 2025.

With 19 devolution deals covering 33 million people either established or in the process of implementation, mayors are playing an increasingly big part in the nation’s political life.

As Mr Gove put it in Leeds last week: “This is the most profound change to the way England has been governed in generations, it is a vote of confidence in local democracy and, in particular, a vote of confidence in Northern leadership. We together are levelling up the North by giving power to its people.”

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But despite Mr Gove’s rosy assertions and many of those already in post facing the voters again this May in mayoral elections, there has been relatively little research on what the public in the North actually makes of them – until now.

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen visits the site of the new Airbourne Colours facility under construction at Teesside International Airport on January 11, 2024 in Darlington, England. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen visits the site of the new Airbourne Colours facility under construction at Teesside International Airport on January 11, 2024 in Darlington, England. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen visits the site of the new Airbourne Colours facility under construction at Teesside International Airport on January 11, 2024 in Darlington, England. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

New research commissioned by communications agency Yasper and shared with The Yorkshire Post offers some fascinating insights into how the mayoral system is perceived at a local level.

Yasper commissioned Censuswide to carry out a survey of 1,000 people in both West Yorkshire, where Labour’s Tracy Brabin is currently mayor, and Tees Valley, where Conservative Ben Houchen holds the role.

The surveys were not weighted – a polling technique designed to most accurately reflect the population of people being questioned. But Censuswide, a member of the British Polling Council, said the online surveys conducted during February involved rigorous data quality checks and offer a significant sample size.

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In addition to polling results suggesting Lord Houchen may be on course for a shock defeat in May, one other standout statistic in the polling was the failure of most respondents to be able to name who their mayor is despite being provided with a list of options including the correct answer.

While 33 per cent of voters in the Tees Valley correctly identified Lord Houchen, 47 per cent selected ‘don’t know’.

The figures were even more stark in West Yorkshire, with only 28 per cent correctly identifying Ms Brabin, while 52 per cent selected ‘don’t know’.

A Yasper insight report stated: “One explanation for this might be that the Tees Valley mayoralty is more established, reaching the end of its second term in 2024, as opposed to West Yorkshire being in its first term.”

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Only nine per cent of voters under 24 could name Ms Brabin as mayor, while 59 per cent of those aged 55 and over correctly identified her.

Perhaps more concerningly for Ms Brabin, when given a list of her 2021 election pledges, only 16 per cent of respondents said she had succeeded in delivering on them compared to 25 per cent who said she hadn’t.

Those pledges included bringing buses back under public control – with a decision on whether that move will go ahead due later this month.

The report said Ms Brabin is “very likely” to be elected for a second term but highlighted that her 41 per cent vote share in this polling is slightly below the 43.1 per cent she received in the first round of the 2021 mayoral elections.

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In Tees Valley, despite the new polling suggesting Lord Houchen may be on course to lose in May’s elections voters generally had a more favourable view of his achievements.

Despite the overwhelming voting intention for a Labour candidate, 38 per cent of the people polled thought that the current Conservative mayor had done an effective job, against 29 per cent thinking he hadn’t. However, 33 per cent selected ‘don’t know’ in answer to the question.

Even on the controversial topic of the operation of the flagship Teesworks project which has been the subject of a critical report about governance problems, respondents were more positive than negative about Lord Houchen’s handling of the issue.

The report said: “Despite much interest and associated media coverage, 38 per cent of respondents counted the current mayor’s handling of the Teesworks redevelopment as ‘positive’, with a further 38 per cent selecting ‘neither positive or negative’.

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"Just 12 per cent had a ‘negative’ perception, with 11 per cent selecting ‘don’t know’.”

Across both West Yorkshire and Tees Valley, there was also a generally positive view that devolution – and specifically having mayors involved in delivering it – is working as a force for levelling up.

James Green, from Censuswide which carried out the polling, said: “While levelling-up has become a core part of political discourse, certainly among the two parties that dominate Westminster politics, there has been relatively little data gathered about the English regions, citizen’s attitudes to devolution, and specifically to the role of a mayor.

"The data this survey has provided gives, in our view, some fascinating insights into a demographic who not only have a say on the two key mayoral positions, but will also get to vote in the General Election that is expected later this year.

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"Perhaps most surprising is that just under half of respondents across the two areas answered ‘I don’t know’ when asked who they thought the incumbent mayor of their mayoral authority was, despite being given a list of potential options.

"Ultimately, however, a majority (59 per cent) of respondents across the two areas felt that devolution (specifically the role of a mayor) as a force for levelling-up the UK was working; 12 per cent said it was fully working, and 47 per cent said it was somewhat working.”

Julian Pearce, founder and MD of Yasper, the communications agency which commissioned the polling, said: “Overall, we have seen a high degree of scepticism in the role and it’s telling that the majority of people can’t identify their mayor’s name, even when given a shortlist of options.

"This trend is particularly prevalent among younger voters, with just nine per cent of under 24s in West Yorkshire correctly identifying that their mayor was Tracy Brabin, and 11 per cent of the same demographic correctly selecting Ben Houchen as Tees Valley mayor.

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“This is not a definitive verdict on whether levelling-up, devolution or, indeed, mayors, are working.

"But it is a salient reminder as we approach some key elections that public perception needs to be a key consideration for politicians on all sides.”

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