A Response: The Case Against Elected Mayor. By Piers Digby
The article was written on May 2nd.
On the third of May, voters will go to the polls in ten of England’s cities to decide whether they want to have a directly elected mayor. Jonathan Trollope has presented a compelling argument as to why you as a voter should say Yes; however, I feel he has failed to properly analyse why people care about democracy, particularly at a local scale. So, in response, I shall be making the argument for why mayors are simply a convenient façade that distracts from the real issues of local government, whilst simultaneously wounding the range and variety of our democracy.
The first claim Trollope makes is to repeat Simon Jenkins’ argument that the adoption of elected mayors will help banish the shadowy civic mafia of local councils. This shows a misunderstanding of why local councils are a “shadowy civic mafia”. The best argument Jenkins and Trollope can provide is that the fact there is a single figure, the mayor, rather than a composite body, the council, means voters can more easily identify a single responsible figure. This makes it easier to participate, and in doing so causes higher turnout. The problem with this assumption is that the reality doesn’t match the fact. Turnout for the Bedford council elections in 2000 (before the creation of the elected Bedford mayor) averaged 35.72% across all the wards. The October 2009 mayoral election saw turnout of 31% . Turnout for the 2002 Lewisham council elections averaged 25.6% across all wards. The 2006 Lewisham mayoral election saw a turnout of 29.4%. These figures are not unique, and are broadly replicated by most councils which now have an elected mayor. The one consistent figure is that the presence of a mayor makes no significant difference to likelihood to vote (with one exception, the Mayor of London; this will be touched upon shortly). As such, it’s clearly not the fact that there are many councillors which is putting off potential voters – all the introduction of mayors will do is create a shadowy civic godfather to head the mafia we have already created.
The following argument is that mayoral politics will banish the apparent chaos of council politics, replacing confusion with order. Trollope points out the disarray of Bristol’s leadership, with council leadership having changed six times in the last seven years. Mayors, once elected, serve the duration of their term bar resignations, and as such bring stability. Here, I feel Trollope has correctly identified a problem, but his solution is somewhat lacking. It introduces an entirely new problem – the fact that mayoral politics destroys variety and change. Of the 11 extant elected mayor seats (excluding London) which have seen multiple elections, only a single one (North Tyneside) changed hands between two of the major parties – and this was only because the incumbent Conservative mayor was arrested on child pornography charges. Rather than creating stability, mayoral politics creates stagnation. It swings too far in the other direction and creates fiefdoms for parties to rule as their own. There is no incentive for mayors to aid economic growth and encouraging businesses, as Trollope talks of. He then talks of mayors creating a national and international presence. I find this is very much untrue. How many mayors, aside from the Mayor of London, can you name? How many mayors, aside from the Mayor of London, do you think the average British voter can name? I should imagine the number is particularly small. Never mind the lofty heights of an “international” presence, mayors struggle to even manage a national presence.
Trollope’s conclusion states that this allows people a greater say in how their local area is run, and that it will act as a panacea to the problems of modern democracy. I see them as not only failing to be a panacea, but acting as an active block to democracy. If you start electing individuals, rather than broad groups, people start focusing on the aspects of that individual, which is much harder to do as a group. This causes personality politics to develop, something which is very damaging for democracy. Instead of evaluating the differences between the policies two parties present, people evaluate the differences between the personalities two people represent. This takes focus from the real issue, which is the policies they suggest, and creates vacuous, soundbite dominated politics at its very worst.
As one final rebuttal, I would point towards the experience of Doncaster. In 2009, following a record low turnout of 18%, Peter Davies of the English Democrats was elected, representing 22% of the first choice votes – all in all, around 4% of the electorate contributed to his mandate. He then preceded to run the mayoralty so badly that Westminster was required to send civil servants in to administer the events, and refused to resign despite a Vote of No Confidence. This could never happen under the council format, as the council leader requires majority support at all times. The events have been so farcical that Doncaster is rapidly moving the opposite way to the way in which Trollope would take us – this year, it shall have a referendum on whether or not to remove the mayor.
Now, it would be rather rude of me to criticize Trollope’s well-written and persuasive arguments without offering any of my own. To do so, I would like to take a look at the problem mayoral politics is meant to solve – the decline of local government. As shown above, the introduction of elected mayors is not a solution – so what is? How can we make people care about local government? The sweet and simple answer is give them something to care about. Councillors have very little power. In a process that arguably started in the 1980s under the Thatcher administration and continued throughout the Major, Brown and Blair administrations, and still continues to this day, Westminster has slowly been removing powers from councils and returning them to central government. The reason turnout is so low is because people don’t care – what powers do councils actually have to influence their lives? Very little. It is a knife and fork question.
If we want to improve local government turnout, we need to return powers to councils, and allow people greater power over how they run their communities. This handily addresses many of the key issues highlighted by Trollope. The shadowy civic mafia will be forced into the blinding daylight as people become more actively involved. If people see a real chance of improving their lives, rather than a tawdry assortment of powers which cannot influence their lives, then they will find out who their prospective councillors are, and contribute to the electoral process more. This same process brings about stability, without the stagnation that was the flaw of Trollope’s suggestion. If council leaders enter the public eye more often due to their increased status, then people will be more aware of poor leadership and chicanery at the helm. As such, they will punish councillors who do so. This process will increase stability. At the same time, it doesn’t allow events like we saw in Doncaster, where a mayor who has lost a Vote of No Confidence and run his area into the ground to the point central government is required to intervene can stay in office.
This allows me to the final point of my argument. You’ll notice I did not touch Trollope’s point on the Mayor of London. While I disagree with the position of London Mayor on the grounds of personality politics, I do acknowledge it has been excellent for inspiring enthusiasm amongst voters, and in shaping London for the better. However, this is not due to the position of Mayor itself, but because, compared to the average council leaders, the Mayor of London has a wide range of extensive powers which allow him or her to do a great deal for their constituents. This is the clear solution for local democracy.
If you want to see flourishing local politics and self-determinant communities, this is your chance. Mayors provide an extra level of bureaucracy, cause political stagnation, create personality politics, whilst having no discernible affect on turnout and commanding no national or international presence. In contrast, increased powers to councils gives people greater powers to shape their communities, creates the powerful local politics that generated high turnout in the past, and would force a more adult politics on a local scale. Reject the snake oil of mayoral politics, and push for decentralisation of government – power to the people.
 Some of the more astute readers amongst you will note I excluded the 2011 Bedford mayoral election, which saw 47% turnout. However; the reason for the exclusion of the 2011 result is that in 2011, the mayoral election and the council election and the AV referendum all coincided, making comparisons to an ordinary year like 2000 rather pointless. 2009 is a more apt comparison.