English mayors are popular and successful. The government should legislate to introduce more of themby Michael Kenny / May 24, 2008 / Leave a comment
The London mayoral election has got a lot of people in the capital talking about politics again. It is partly, of course, the fact that the battle for Britain’s most important directly elected political position is being contested by two celebrity candidates—Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson—in a very tight race.
But there is more at stake here than political drama. This election matters for the people of London. True, the Greater London Authority Act of 1999 handed few direct powers to the mayor. The city leader is able to exercise strategic and co-ordinating powers over only transport, policing and economic development. Nonetheless, Livingstone has proved adept at using these powers and his ability to “speak for London” to develop some innovative policies, notably the congestion charge. He has, moreover, seen his powers in the field of housing and planning strengthened.
Beyond London, it is clear that there is something about elected mayors which generates political energy and a sense of connection. As a result of their direct election, mayors are much better known than council leaders, and are in a position to promote greater political accountability.
So why are there only 13 of them in England? Back in the late 1990s, Tony Blair saw mayors as a central plank of his plans for local government reform. Yet the policy has ended up as a damp squib thanks to powerful voices in local government who squashed the idea.
The Local Government Act 2000 made the introduction of an elected mayor contingent upon a local referendum, which could be triggered either by a majority council vote or a petition signed by 5 per cent of local voters. Unsurprisingly, few councils opted to give local people the chance to vote. And where referendums have been triggered by petitions, local elites have been effective in leading opposition campaigns. Roughly twice as many polls have produced “no” as “yes” votes. The 5 per cent threshold in some places exceeds the percentage of people who turn out to vote in local elections.
Given Labour’s invincible position at the time, an opportunity was missed to change the culture of local political leadership in England. What makes this even more frustrating is that the last six years show that mayors have worked well. Nowhere have the nightmare scenarios anticipated by sceptics—corruption, the election of joke candidates, the breakdown of local party politics—come true. Even Hartlepool’s mayor, Stuart…