Monday, January 25, 2010

No thanks Mr Mayor

I see that over on Left Foot Forward they are arguing that directly elected Mayors will help to reinvigorate local politics. This position is based on the idea that a powerful local Mayor, directly elected by the people empowers the area.

The authors of the piece rightly worry about the budget cuts to come "no matter which party wins" the next general election and that the remedy against this is to give more power, financial autonomy and control to a new generation of super-Mayors.

I think this is a mistaken view, if well intentioned. It's quite right that over the last forty years the balance of power between local authorities and the national government has fundamentally shifted towards the center making local government a mere arm of central government, disempowering local voters.

I believe that's a problem that we need to reverse but it's a mistake to think we need novel new structures to do this, particularly when the proposal would make local government less representative of the people, not more.

For some time local councils have been shifted towards a far more cabinet style structure where the majority of councillors provide for voting fodder and a handful of members take the core decisions, forming a layer of professional politicians. Deepening this 'winner takes all' approach is the very opposite of what all recent democratic reforms have been about.

Concentrating power into the hands of a single person denies the possibility of a diverse, pluralistic political system that represents (proportionally?) the breadth of views of local people. It makes it harder for those who are in minority to influence events, and ironically it disempowers supporters of the majority parties who end up either having to be for or against 'their' Mayor.

It's one thing to argue that local government should have more autonomy, I'm for that, it's quite another to then pass that autonomy to one big cheese rendering local councillors pretty much like a set of stage armies.

Ironically the authors say that more mayors would help undermine the pull towards politics being populated by professional politicians. In fact it would do the exact opposite. The majority of local councillors *are* ordinary people drawn from the local area, it's the centralisation of local government that has undermined those councillors to the benefit of a smaller, more elitist core.

7 comments:

David Cox said...

I agree 100% with every word!

Mr Andy C said...

Voters do not vote the same locally as they do in a national election. We have ended up with some disastrous results such as the English Democrat in Doncaster and the guy dressed as a monkey in Hartlepool. Hardly empowering the area.

Jim Jepps said...

That's true Andy, but surely a lot of the discrepency between national and local voting is people making the 'realistic' choice.

We get this a lot in the Greens. Where we are active we find it easier to get people to vote for us locally than nationally and much (although perhaps not all) of this is people knowing we can win the local area but wont form the next government.

I think this is a slightly different issue from the politics that we disagree with. I don't want people to elect bigots but if that's what they want I'm not sure I'm in a position to disagree with the result.

However, to agree for a mo, for Donacaster to have one person with a large amount of power that most residents don't want aS mayor is a democratic problem.

If he was more accountable because the local government was more powerful than him it wouldn't be the same scale of problem.

That might be a ramble... apologies if so.

Jorge said...

Well, if the residents of Doncaster did not want a mayor they should not have voted to have a mayor. That referendum was a solid win unlike the mayoral election which was a 3-way tie. In that case, why not have 3 mayors? In an ideal world I would even suggest that this be adopted nationally. Why not have 2 sub-prime ministers?

Jim Jepps said...

Hi Jorge,

I think there's a difference between accepting the result and saying it was a bad decision.

I don't think 3 Mayors are better than a full council with proper powers. You can get rid of a head of council pretty easily - directly elected mayors not so.

Investing so much power in specific indivuals with a tiny number of people who can hold them to account just isn't good for democracy.

friendlylefty said...

I can't speak for other areas, but Tower Hamlets would certainly benefit from a local directly elected Mayor. It would allow candidates to sidestep the stifling stranglehold of the big party bureaucracies and be transparent and accountable to the electorate - few of whom at present have ever heard of their council leader.

I think you must acknowledge that the London mayoralty, however disastrously it's being used at present, contained the potential for great steps forward in the way the capital was run to the benefit of its population.

Jim Jepps said...

I don't think it's about candidates it's about what happens when you've elected someone.

In TH you'd go from a situation where a multi-party democracy has a month to month scrutiny over the council to a far more centralised situation with a far less accountable figurehead.

I don't think that's good for democracy whoever was elected to the postion.

Re the London Mayor the situation now is definitely an improvement on what went before but it is much worse than the days of the GLC which had a more pluralist structure without the domineering and powerful single figure.

I loved Ken as head of the GLC, I only liked him as London Mayor.

More importantly the structure has to work in both fair wind and foul - and right now Boris has far more power than he should have and our ability to hold him to account is too diminished.