Ken Livingstone, London's first directly elected mayor

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Directly elected mayors are not
an effective model for England

By Councillor Richard Kemp*

19 November 2006: Let me make clear from the start – I don’t like the idea of elected mayors. I have been a councillor a long, long time and do not believe that they are an effective model for most areas. Ah, I hear someone say - an old fuddy-duddy, stick-in-the-mud councillor who thinks that he has seen it all and is long past his ‘sell by date’. Perhaps, but remember this – I come from Liverpool, a council which has embraced change and made faster, more deep cutting change than any other council in the country. I am not scared of change – I embrace it and preach it. I oppose (elected) mayors as a matter of principle and because we can already see that they are having no discernible impact on the areas they lead.

Update November 2007:
In October 2007 the UK government’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act was finally approved by Parliament and overhauled the system of governance in most English councils, seven years after the landmark Local Government Act, which introduced the elected mayor model for the first time. The new Act requires council leaders to be installed for four years, thus almost creating a Swedish-style indirectly elected mayor. More

So let us look at some of the arguments for having mayors and see how they are panning out in practice:

Mayors will be more visible and will clearly be seen to be leaders of their communities. Certainly, a good mayor will be better known than a poor leader but where is the evidence that mayors are better known than council leaders? My experience is that good leaders are well known both by the opinion leaders with which the council has to work and with the population as a whole.

The mayoral system will bring in a new type of person to stand. Of our 13 mayors 10 are party politicians. Eight of them were either the council leader before they became mayor or a party group leader. Of the three independents, one edited the local newspaper, one was already a national figure and one was a football mascot. Not the high flying business people that some rather naively think will flock to the position in future.

The mayoral system will provide better leadership. One third of all council leaders are women. Only 1 out of 13 mayors is a woman. A strong leadership model is often confused with a testosterone-charged model. The mayoral system suits men more than women. They like to be macho charismatic leaders. Women politicians usually adopt a more consensual style which is not as easy to adopt in a singleton position. As already discussed most were the previous party bosses returned with a newer more expensive coat!

Turnout will be higher. Whilst it is true that turnout was higher for the first mayoral elections in most cases that was not subsequently sustained.

Councils will be better run. Any examination of the Governments’ own inspection system of Corporate Performance Assessment will show that that there is no discernible difference between mayoral and other councils. Those that came in because of a poor council like the mayor of Watford have improved well. However, so have those who came in as leader in a poor council like Liverpool or Walsall.

So if having a mayor does not make a lot of difference why do I so clearly campaign against them? Three reasons:

1) I think that one of the major problems with British politics is that we are aping the American system of personality politics. Already national elections are built on a presidential model with minute delving into the merits of the individual rather than a complex review of the teams and the programmes that the parties put forward. Politics of governments and large councils is too complex for us to need to put our faith in individuals. Proper teams drive real change, dysfunctional teams and even a Prime Minister never mind a mayor has to be part of a team) cannot move communities or countries forward. Personality cults – Blairism – Thatcherism are usually self defeating as the power is narrowly drawn into to a smaller and smaller group of people they lose touch with reality and take on messianistic habits! And why is it that being well known is an important aspect of the work anyway. In most independent polls more people know the name of their local councillor and council leader than that of their MP. Anyone suggesting that we abolish MPs?

2) The debate obscures the real issue. The real reason for lack of local leadership is the massive centralisation of British Government in the hands of a handful of politicians and civil servants in Whitehall. Even with welcome changes suggested by the latest White Paper, local government will spend less than 15% of the public sector spend in their area and over half of that is ring fenced. Until local people can make local decisions about spending locally raised money local government will only ever be a beggar at the rich man’s table. Unless the quangos are culled no-one will ever know who really makes the key decisions as most decisions are really made by unelected people in small private gatherings.

3) It ignores the strength of the present system where a councillor does their apprenticeship as a ward councillor; gets to know the business; advances through the party group and is chosen to lead confident in the fact that they have a mandate from the people who day in and day out are responsible for helping to deliver the services as well as deliver the vote. When you are running a big business like Liverpool, teams are vital to ensure political coherence and service delivery. If we take a business analogy shareholders do not choose the chairman or chief executive of a large private company. If I suggested that they should people would think I was mad – but that is what is being proposed through a mayoral model for local government.

So how do we cope with what is obviously a capacity problem on the elected side of local government?

We return real power to local councils; we return tax raising powers to local councils; we assist political parties expand their talent pool; we provide proper training, advice and support to elected members; we provide proper pay for councillors and conditions of service commensurate with the major responsibility they undertake with a discount for their desire to serve the public; we abolish the quangocracy and the ability to earn a good living in easy conditions by being on quango boards.

Unless we deal with these very basic, very real issues local government will not be able to rise to some of the challenges that local people believe they should be dealing with. Until we do that then there will still be siren voices calling us to move to mayoral systems that are still largely untried, untested ‘pigs in a poke!’

*Councillor Richard Kemp is Deputy Chair and Leader of the Liberal Democrat group at the Local Government Association of England and Wales.

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