Elected Mayors Are Unlikely To Provide A New Voice for Leeds
On May 3rd of this year a number of English metropolitan areas including Leeds and Bradford, will be asked to decide whether they want to follow the capital and a few other cities in having a directly elected mayor. Perhaps the humble provinces will be able to experience the Boris & Ken type spectacle of mayoral politics, grabbing exciting headlines and leader comments. Better that than the depressing headlines generated by the mayor of Doncaster.
Will elected mayors be as much use?
Image courtesy of Steve W and the Science Museum
The debate over elected mayors has been a rather rushed affair with much discussion on the democratic merits whilst much less on the practical aspects. Is the mayor replacing council leaders or is this a wholly new political entity? Pinning down an answer to this is no easy task.
Elected mayors certainly have wide support across the political spectrum, the idea first being introduced by Labour and then picked up by the coalition’s new localism mantra through the Localism Act (2011). If media and political noise alone were indicators of enthusiasm, the result of the votes on May 3rd would be a foregone conclusion.
But as is so often the case, the public are a little more sanguine about the whole affair. NatCen published the results of a recent survey that showed a distinct cooling of enthusiasm towards the idea of elected mayors; though this seems to be less a matter of hostility than it is of indifference.
Some unions are openly hostile towards the idea with Unison urging their members for a no vote on May 3rd and even Labour and Lib Dems are a little more cautious than they were, though one suspects this would not be the case had the general election swung a different way or if the Lib Dems did not have most of their power base in local councils (Rival campaigns fight over directly-elected mayors in England).
One can understand the motivations of power brokers who operate largely out of self-interest. For the most part, the public has learned to pay only scant attention to such posturings. But why should the public be losing interest in mayoral politics before it has even really begun?
Given that politics, whether local or national, is often quite an obscure affair that seems to operate wholly independent of the electorate, it should come as no surprise to the pundits that this new layer of democracy is viewed with caution. In fact it should be commended as an indication of an intelligent electorate. But there has been very little attempt to explain exactly what an elected mayor does, what powers they have, who they are accountable to and why they are better than the current system.
The key question is about power; what will they be able to do and who are they accountable to? And this is where it becomes a little murky. The Warwick Commission report provides the clearest overview of what the new system may mean, but even here we are confronted with ambiguities “government has indicated that new mayors will be able to ask for powers they include in their manifestos”. Who are they asking; Whitehall. What then will be the unfolding and developing relationship between central government and elected mayors? It does not take a Machiavellian mind to foresee how a savvy mayor could extend their power considerably by aligning their policies with those of central government.
Backroom deals, obscure political wrangling, power grabs and duplicitous behaviour; it all sounds very familiar at both the local and national level of politics. There seems to be nothing in the new model that challenges the current trend towards a kakistocracy, and people are not so gullible to think that it would. Politicians appear to believe that we have forgotten the expenses scandal, the News Of the World scandal, cash for questions and so on. We have not.
We may be able to avert our eyes from the inevitable political quagmire that the mayoral system will undoubtedly become, if it did indeed reinvigorate local democracy. This has been the rallying cry from proponents of the system. Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, has run with this idea; “elected mayors are a magnet that will draw attention and accountability back to local people”. Though he does not go quite so far as to explain how this miracle of democratic healing will occur.
What special democratic qualities will an elected mayor have that an MP or councillor will not? What new vision will they be able to realise using the same limited funds that local authorities draw from? Are they somehow special in a way that councillors are not? The reality of the UK elected mayoral system may well be that local authorities will be weakened by the tensions and conflicts between competing bureaucracies. Far from such figures devolving power from Westminster, they are as likely to concentrate power within metropolitan areas under the direction of a single personality.
Party politics and local government is always going to be quite dull and largely self-serving, adding another layer will not change that. If the government wish to encourage political participations they need not look far. UK Uncut and Occupy have done more to generate real debate in the last eighteen months than Westminster and the London media cabal have achieved in the last ten years. Democracy is not about leaders and personalities, it is about empowerment and autonomy. Finding ones own voice is one of the most important elements of a free society, abdicating ones feelings, expressions and views to another, one of the most disempowering.
If democracy is about reclaiming power, then we need to first find our own voice. We find that voice within our friends and communities not within the partisan politics of local or national government. The truth about the mayoral system is that whether we vote for or against on May 3rd we can be sure of one thing; there will be someone else trying to take control of out lives.