Wanted: powerful city bosses

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Mayoral referendums next month could produce visionary local leaders. More likely they will lead to powerless local managers

I live in Essex but had never heard of Lord Hanningfield, nor of his pre-ermined identity as Paul White, until he was imprisoned for making false claims for parliamentary expenses. I did not know that he had been leader of Essex County Council from 2001 and had served on the council for four decades. Most Essex council taxpayers, I guess, were in similar ignorance.

I guess, too, that most Britons could not name the leaders of any of their local councils. That includes the citizens of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Bristol and other cities where, on May 3, referendums will be held to decide whether they should have elected mayors.

In Europe and the US, mayors can be named by as many as 80% of  local people. If they blunder in office, they will be thrown out at the next election. If successful, they may rise to the national legislature or government, which, in Britain, would be a refreshing alternative to the clones from London think-tanks, party research offices and ministerial bag-carrying teams.

The direct election of individuals to positions of power is alien to our constitution, we are told. We vote for parties and programmes and send MPs to Westminster to deliberate on what they perceive as our best interests.

In reality, most voters do not read manifestos and briefly name-check their MP only when about to mark a ballot paper. They support the party leader who seems most likely to run the country competently. Their political engagement occurs through personalities not policies. They may sometimes fall for smooth talk, glib promises and a pleasing physiognomy but, in a democracy, that is how it must be.

Local government lacks personalities and therefore fails to engage the majority. Whether the referendums on elected mayors will lead to change is moot. Of the 41 held since 2000, mostly in small towns or cities such as Bedford, Mansfield, Torbay and Gloucester, only 14 recorded a ‘yes’ for an elected mayor. Only three attracted a turnout of more than 50% and, in two, it was as low as 10%. Voters appeared to believe that mayors would incur higher costs without promising evident improvements. To them, the question: ‘Do you want to elect a mayor?’ was an abstraction.

For May’s referendums – in most cases imposed by the government – the question is even more abstract. Ministers have not set out what functions mayors may perform. If elected, the mayors will be invited, in effect, to negotiate their own powers with central government.

But the idea that they will develop visions for economic regeneration and public transport, as the Mayor of London does, is laughable. For example, the mayor of Manchester will rule only over the core city and a population no bigger than two average-sized London boroughs. His or her empire will not include Stretford or Salford, homes to the city’s most famous institutions, Manchester United football club and the Coronation Street soap opera.

By contrast, Boris Johnson’s remit covers 32 London boroughs, from Croydon in the south to Enfield in the north. Only the mayoralty of Birmingham, covering a population of more than a million, seems likely to attract politicians of comparable public profile; several MPs have already expressed an interest.

Just as New Labour created a London mayor in 2000, and then expected to insert somebody who would make the position irrelevant, so David Cameron proclaims that it is time for ‘great civic leadership’ when what he really wants is a credible head of a branch office. Even as it flies the flag of devolution, central government clings to every scrap of power and prepares to return local government leaders once more to invisibility.

Peter Wilby is a writer, commentator and former editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the April edition of Public Finance

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