'Crazy low' turnout at Tees Valley Mayoral election appears to reflect national picture

Ben Houchen at Thornaby Pavilion on Friday during the election count
Ben Houchen at Thornaby Pavilion on Friday during the election count -Credit:Naomi Corrigan

Two weeks before the Tees Valley Mayoral election, a poll suggested almost 40 per cent of people were unaware it was even taking place.

Based on those figures, it's perhaps unsurprising then that only 30.8 per cent of eligible voters turned up on polling day last Thursday. Voter numbers were even lower than in 2021 when 34 per cent of people cast their vote and Ben Houchen was elected for his second term.

A drop in turnout was not only restricted to the Tees Valley. It mirrored the picture seen across the country including Greater Manchester where 28.6 per cent turned up to vote, down from 34.7 per cent in 2021. The new post of North East Mayor elections attracted just 31 per cent of eligible voters while London-wide voter turnout also fell.

Evidence suggests election participation has continued to decline across the world since the 1960s, despite the expansion of democracy. In the UK, some eligible voters are less likely to vote than others - including young people and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Opinions on the reason behind the drop vary, depending on who you speak to. Reacting to the figures on social media, some blamed apathy or the new voter ID system, while others said people were simply "disinterested" or "disillusioned".

Having been in the post since 2017, Lord Houchen has been at the centre of several local and national news headlines, not least over the review into the redevelopment at Teesworks. Big ticket pledges such as building a new hospital and transport pledges ranging from town centre trams and a Tees Tunnel linking Hartlepool and Redcar have also raised his profile.

Despite this, of the 900 people polled by Redfield and Wilton Strategies in April, even Lord Houchen was only very or fairly familiar to a mere 39 per cent of his electorate. A staggering 47 per cent were ‘not at all’ familiar with him. Regarding the election, less than half of those polled said they were ‘significantly’ or ‘fairly’ aware it was taking place, prior to the taking the survey. Another 37 per cent were not at all familiar with it.

Broken down into local authorities across the Tees Valley, the turnout was 27% in Middlesbrough, in Stockton 34 per cent, Redcar and Cleveland 29 per cent, Hartlepool 28 per cent and Darlington 33 per cent. The Local Democracy Reporting Service discussed the issue with Mike Milen, the chief executive of the community anchor organisation group Community Ventures Tees Valley based in Middlesbrough, where turnout was lowest.

He said turnout at local elections, in particular, was "pitiful" and many people see themselves as "bystanders" rather than having a voice in their communities. "People are interested in improvements and services are important but they just don't necessarily see local councillors as a vehicle to do that," he said.

"They don't see that they are part of the system, it's almost as if they are bystanders," he said. "There's seems to be a disconnect there."

When speaking to people in the community about politicians, there is a constant phrase which comes up, he said - "'They are all the same' and they don't think [their vote] would make a difference."

Regarding policies and pledges of the mayoral candidates, he said: "Some conversations I have with people, they say, 'it sounds valid but doesn't impact on me. I'm too busy worrying about how to put food on the table and where the jobs are coming from.'"

As a group, he said they encourage people in the community to vote or at least share the information. A post regarding the rules for photo ID was displayed on their website, he said, but most people just scrolled past. They have also tried to educate young people about politics in their area and the people who represent them, particularly surrounding the work of the Police and Crime Commissioner.

Turnout at the election for the PCC was just over 30 per cent. It saw Labour's Matt Storey oust Conservative Steve Turner who had held the post since 2021.

As reported, Lord Houchen won his third term as Mayor with 54 per cent of the vote, compared to more than 70 per cent of the vote in 2021. He thanked his supporters as well as his opponents and said he would strive the win back more votes over the next four years, "pushing" to bring more jobs and investment.