Politicos who value local democracy should take some time to think about how mayoral politics can be made more worthy of the name, writes Ellie Cumbo.
Among other things, Daily Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges said on Monday the number one responsibility of the Mayor is to “unify our capital”, and give a voice to “all of its citizens”. Proponents of directly elected mayors would agree, with Lords Heseltine and Adonis hailing them as the key to a better deal from Whitehall.
Of course elected mayors will have the potential to act as noisy national spokespeople for their cities and regions. But to cast mayors primarily as glorified local lobbyists, advocating on voters’ behalf to someone else who has the final responsibility, is to ignore the vast range of decisions in which the buck stops with them.
In London, there are at least 14.6 billion reasons for political commentators to focus less on what the mayor says and more on what he actually does.
With ten more cities poised to hold referendums this week on whether to adopt a similar model, here are three other reasons those with an interest in healthy local politics should consider.
• Elected mayors: To vote or not to vote? 26 Apr 2012
• Elected mayors: let the referendum campaigns begin 26 Jan 2012
Firstly, the public need much more clarity about mayors’ powers, and how they intersect with those of local authorities and Parliament. In my time working at City Hall I learned that significant numbers of Londoners thought the mayor could change national laws so they didn’t apply in London, order Westminster city council to let them off parking fines, or take on their heartbreaking money and housing problems as casework.
It cannot be good for public confidence in politicians that voters have been encouraged to view the Mayor as their universal representative, instead of the executive arm of one particular level of government.
Secondly, those who scrutinise the Mayor are not getting the support they need. The London Assembly has a tough enough job as it is: Assembly Members question Boris Johnson and his team just a few times per month at Mayor’s Question Time, or via longer-term committee investigations.
Their efforts are not helped when the media takes little to no interest because they’re more interested in what the Mayor thinks about Gary McKinnon, or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or umpteen other things over which he has no direct power whatsoever.
Finally, the lack of debate on mayoral business has surely played a part in allowing the candidates’ personalities to all but eclipse their policies. Ken Livingstone may have been selected more than a year and a half before the election, but in the face of the consensus that proper engagement in local politics just isn’t sexy, his ability to engage the traditional media beyond accusations of tax-dodging versus regurgitated chicken feed was always going to be limited.
It has been largely left to bloggers and tweeters to point out Boris’s proposed council tax cut is worth one onion a month, or to report on the demise of the Metropolitan Police Authority and what it means for police accountability. On top of that, he is not an Assembly Member and does not have even their minimal powers of formal policy scrutiny.
This is a hopeless way to generate discussion around imaginative new ideas for a better London.
Whatever the outcomes on Thursday, politicos who value local democracy should take some time to think about how mayoral politics can be made more worthy of the name.
In London, Labour should get a more authoritative, strategic grip on what Mayoral powers should be used for in the long-term; and this expertise and vision must be there to draw on from the second candidates are selected. Parties should also review the support made available to their AMs, to ensure their scrutiny work is visible to the public, and take a view on reforms to the system itself, such as a cabinet of Deputy Mayors with specific responsibilities.
But commentators, bloggers, tweeters and political pub chatterers also have to redouble attempts to turn the media spotlight on the real business of City Hall, and council chambers across the country; devolution of powers is doomed if the public debate doesn’t go with them.
Right now, millions of ordinary voters might be about to fall down the chasm between the two.