A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors

Directly-elected mayors would avoid a schooling of internal party politics for city premiers, and could stand up toofficers. Progressives should back them.

In just nine months time voters in London will go to the polls and decide whether Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson runs the capital.

On the same day, eleven of the largest cities outside the metropolis will also be making a critical decision – whether to follow London down the same road and switch to directly-elected executive mayors.

Voters in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham, Coventry and Bristol are lined up for a referendum next May – Leicester, meanwhile, has already opted for one under existing legislation.

The proposals are contained in the government’s Localism Bill currently completing its parliamentary stages and enshrined in the coalition’s programme for government (p.12). Elected mayors were also a Labour manifesto commitment (p.9.4) at the last general election, albeit on a slightly grander “city-region” scale.

Although there were 39 local referendums on whether to switch to the mayoral model by the end of Labour’s 13 year in office, just 14 local authorities had opted to do so (and one, Stoke, actually reverted back to previous arrangements, fearful of a BNP win), while Salford in Greater Manchester looks set to be the next to decide on a mayor, following a recent mass petition of local residents demanding a vote.

This time around the department of communities and local government’s impact assessment projects that eight of the eleven big cities holding referendums next May will see a positive response, although the situation on the ground is more complex.

Here, the concept of directly-elected mayors runs into the local government’s innate conservatism. Many councillors, from all political parties, tend to see the idea as a threat to their status and career prospects. Likewise, senior officers who are used to dealing with part-time amateur politicians greet the prospect of dealing with powerful, independent mayors with strong, personal mandates with something less than alacrity.

Putting the shallow self-interest of local government’s panjandrums to one side, however, there are powerful reasons why the time has come for directly-elected mayors. The first and most obvious is that the skill-set traditionally needed to bubble to the top of municipal politics – which focuses on internal politicking and party management – is simply peripheral to the task of running large, modern, outward-looking cities.

Council leaders increasingly need to be transformative and engaging figures; galvanising the communities they serve, lobbying at a national and international level for their city’s interests and driving change internally to meet complex social and economic goals.

A recent report by the Urban Land Institute think tank shows that developing a city’s brand is now crucial in securing investment and economic development. There are countless examples (including both Ken and Boris) where elected mayors can use their status to actually personify the city’s brand. It is also clear that electoral turnout and the public’s awareness of who runs their council increase considerably under the mayoral model. The test for this is simple: Boris Johnson aside, there is not a single other high-profile big city council chief in the land.

Likewise the ongoing imperative of making deep spending cuts and reshaping services makes it vital that our biggest councils have strong political leadership and clear vision as they try to withstand the bracing financial headwinds of the next few years.

But the clock is ticking. Assuming the Localism Bill is passed in the autumn, there is now less than a year to mount campaigns in each of the 11 cities to sell this proposition to the British public.

The failure of the AV referendum campaign shows the need for early campaign planning. The elected mayor model needs advocates. It is an issue that deserves an airing and there is much for progressives to embrace. The danger is that next May’s local referendums get overlooked as the party machines narrow their attention on the bread-and-butter local elections and Ken vs Boris: The Rematch.

Unless effective all-party (and no party) campaigns are put together now, the forces of conservatism in local government may prevail; leaving the largest cities outside London even further behind in terms of political heft and the ability to shape their own destinies; accentuating the gulf that already exists between the capital and rest of the country.

We will be left with a penny farthing political system trying to grapple with the intricate problems of complex, 21st century cities which are trying to juggle a fast-moving policy agenda with vastly fewer resources than has been the case in recent years. Furthermore, a failure to make this crucial change will serve to reward and entrench the parochialism of the current system. 

This is a once in a generation opportunity to redraw the power map of England. Progressives of all shapes and sizes are needed to lead the way in doing so; but are we equal to the challenge?

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24 Responses to “A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors”

  1. Alex Burrows

    RT @leftfootfwd: A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors: http://bit.ly/nBWYOx: writes Kevin Meagher

  2. Libby H

    A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors: http://bit.ly/nBWYOx: writes Kevin Meagher

  3. Vijay Singh Riyait

    A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors: http://bit.ly/nBWYOx: writes Kevin Meagher

  4. Lee Hyde

    A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors: http://bit.ly/nBWYOx: writes Kevin Meagher

  5. CAROLE JONES

    A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors: http://bit.ly/nBWYOx: writes Kevin Meagher

  6. MustBeRead

    Kevin Meagher at @LeftFootFwd: Progressives should back directly-elected mayors – http://t.co/CrZ2uxY

  7. Hens4Freedom

    RT @leftfootfwd: A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors: http://bit.ly/nBWYOx: writes Kevin Meagher #NewsClub

  8. James

    Two words: Tower Hamlets.

    No.

  9. The Tea Party Tory

    Kevin Meagher at @LeftFootFwd: Progressives should back directly-elected mayors – http://t.co/CrZ2uxY

  10. Ben Mitchell

    RT @leftfootfwd: A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors http://t.co/DV117AF This is a no brainer. A MUST for Bristol et.al

  11. DavidG

    The article refers to ‘the shallow self-interest of local government’s panjandrums’, yet the stories I heard around the dinner table while growing up – a family member was a council chief officer – tended to revolve around politicians trying to end-run officer’s annoying insistence that they be restrained by minor concerns like the law of the land.

    If we hand local politicians increased power, we need to ensure that the officers have the tools, independence and strength of character to restrain them where it becomes necessary.

  12. Claire Spencer

    Glad that Brum has a cross-party campaign up and running-as @leftfootfwd says, we need an elected mayor: http://s.coop/3jsj (via @sionsimon)

  13. John Turner

    Glad that Brum has a cross-party campaign up and running-as @leftfootfwd says, we need an elected mayor: http://s.coop/3jsj (via @sionsimon)

  14. Mr. Sensible

    I simply don’t think this is necesary as we already elect the council and the majority party forms the government. And this could in fact prove bad for accountability as so much power will rest with 1 individual, unchecked. In Leicester, they’ve decided to remove the council’s Chief Executive, even though I think officers give an important counterbalance to politicians.

    In any case, I think we should stick with the old legislation where councils decide for themselves, rather than having this forced on them at a time of spending cuts. I see what the Coalition is doing as contrary to localism.

  15. Anon E Mouse

    Mr Sensible – Having lived for many years in Leicester you need to realise how it differs from Nottingham.

    Why for example aren’t the ratepayers in Nottingham not going nuts about the council wage bill, the MASSIVE waster of the public’s money and the FOI requests they keep refusing.

    It’s OK where you live Mr.S. Try living in the real world for a bit and you may see things differently….

  16. Julia Higginbottom

    RT @leftfootfwd: A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors: http://bit.ly/nBWYOx: writes Kevin Meagher

  17. Lee

    RT @leftfootfwd: A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors: http://bit.ly/nBWYOx: writes Kevin Meagher

  18. Tim Wilson

    Interesting. RT @gabysslave RT @alexcburrows: RT @leftfootfwd: A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors: http://bit.ly/nBWYOx

  19. John Turner

    RT @leftfootfwd: A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors: http://bit.ly/nBWYOx: writes Kevin Meagher

  20. Alun

    One word. One word. One little, devastating word: Donny.

    Also, for the record, the reason why the post was scrapped in Stoke wasn’t because people were afraid that the BNP might win it. It was scrapped because it was a miserable failure.

  21. Kevin

    No Alun, it was scrapped because the local political elite thought the BNP would win the Stoke mayoralty.

    The same malady affects Doncaster. Both towns were basket cases long before elected mayors were ever heard of.

    My challenge for opponents of elected mayors is this: come up with a better model for the political management of our cities and major towns. Or is the current sorry state of affairs with second rate time servers (in the main)running the show as good as it gets?

  22. Will Birmingham say ‘alrite’ to an elected Mayor? | Left Foot Forward

    […] A call for progressives to back directly-elected mayors 5 Aug […]

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