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What’s the point of mayors?

Voters seem much less keen on the idea than politicians

By Peter Kellner  

"Apart from the congestion charge (Livingstone) and "Brosi bikes" (Johnson), I doubt whether many Londoners can point to any concrete achievements of the two mayors over the past 16 years" ©Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

Read more from Prospect’s “The Future of Cities” supplement

Maybe one day the dream of a powerful, accountable, well-known, directly-elected mayor for every British city will become a reality. But maybe it won’t. Two decades after Labour first mooted the idea, the concept is struggling to capture the public imagination. Outside London, few people have an elected mayor. Some of our biggest cities have rejected them. The project has stalled, and is as likely to go into reverse as to resume its forward march. What has gone wrong?

Let us start at the beginning. Labour’s 1997 manifesto said: “We will encourage democratic innovations in local government, including pilots of the idea of elected mayors with executive powers in cities.” It also promised to establish a London-wide assembly, led by a directly elected mayor. (The Conservatives had abolished the Greater London Council in 1986.)

London duly acquired its mayor and assembly, with Ken Livingstone taking office in 2000. Since then, voters elsewhere have often been reluctant to support the idea of elected mayors. Here are the basic numbers.

Referendums have been held in 51 towns and cities. As many as 35 ballots have rejected the idea. Only 16 have supported them. Of these, two (Stoke and Hartlepool) have since held referendums that ended elected mayors. That leaves 14. These include four London boroughs (Lewisham, Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets); here voters choose both a borough-mayor and a London-wide mayor. Outside London, referendums have given voters just 10 elected mayors.

The record in the big provincial cities is stark. Voters in Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Leeds, Manchster, Newcastle upon Tyne, Plymouth and Sheffield have all rejected the idea. The one major city with an elected mayor is Liverpool. But that is not because Liverpudlians voted for one in a referendum. Instead, the city council simply decided in 2012 that it wanted one, and decided to create the elected post without a referendum.

One other point should be made about the referendums. In only three of the 51 that have been held has the turnout been above 42 per cent. And in all three cases this is because they were held on the same days a general elections: one each in 2001, 2005 and 2010. Eight of the referendums have seen turnouts of below 20 per cent: Bedford, Bury, Ealing, Kirklees, Lewisham, Salford, Southwark and Sunderland. It’s not that voters in much of England are passionately opposed to elected mayors; for the most part, they don’t care either way.

Those statistics tell the numeral story of the failure of an idea. The human story has sometimes been no better.

“Hartlepool FC’s mascot failed to attend any hustings and made only one election promise: free bananas for all children. He was elected. And re-elected in 2005—and 2009 despite failing to deliver his promise on bananas”

Consider Stuart Drummond. He was familiar to local football fans when he dressed up as Hartlepool football club’s mascot, H’Angus the Monkey. As a publicity stunt, the club put Drummond forward as a candidate for mayor. He failed to attend any hustings with the other candidates and made only one election promise: free bananas for all children. Even so, he was elected. And re-elected in 2005—and again in 2009 (despite failing to deliver his promise on bananas). Eventually the joke wore thin, and the town voted in 2012 to abolish the position, whereupon Drummond duly resigned.

On the same day as Drummond’s initial election in Hartlepool, Labour’s Martin Winter was elected mayor of Doncaster, and re-elected in 2005. However, his second term was overshadowed by a scandal in the city’s social services department, following the death of seven children on the “At Risk” register. Winter was expelled by the Labour Party, and eventually forced to resign as mayor in 2009. His successor, Peter Davies, benefited from the backlash against the Labour Party. Davies was the candidate of the far right English Democrats—a party he subsequently left, blaming an influx of supporters from the British National Party. As in Hartlepool, the mayoral saga prompted a fresh referendum; but this time the city voted to keep its mayor, and elected a conventional, scandal-free Labour candidate, Ros Jones.

The story of Tower Hamlets is no happier. Its first elected mayor was Lutfur Rahman, an independent former solicitor who had quit the Labour Party after being replaced as Labour leader on the local council. The High Court, which found him guilty of corrupt practices, declared his election void and disqualified from holding public office.

Should these stories surprise us? After all, two of the inspirations for the idea of electing mayors are France and the United States, where cities are run by major public figures with big powers. But they, too, have had their share of corrupt mayors. There is no obvious reason why Britain should be immune.

There is another factor. British mayors have far fewer powers than their French or American counterparts. As a result they do not serve as stepping stones to national prominence, and so tend to attract less impressive candidates.

London is a partial exception. Its mayors—Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson—certainly are major figures, though it is a matter of judgement whether either or both deserve the adjective “impressive.” What London’s mayor does not have is the kind of power enjoyed by his counterpart in Paris or New York. Apart from the congestion charge, introduced by Livingstone, and “Boris bikes” (a policy actually developed by Livingstone but introduced by Boris), I doubt whether many Londoners can point to any concrete achievements of the two mayors over the past 16 years.

As long as mayors remain weak, voters outside London are likely to see little point in them. But if mayors are given serious powers, then do we not risk even worse things than those seen in Hartlepool, Doncaster and Tower Hamlets? Perhaps we need a far bigger national discussion about the future of local government, including how to develop a political culture that could supply candidates of real quality.

Unless and until that happens, mayors are likely to remain a constitutional sideshow.

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