Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Directly Elected Mayors - An Imaginary Letter to David Cameron

Dear Mr Cameron,

I suppose that, with only months to go before an election, it has always been beholden upon leaders of the Opposition to announce policies that at face value appear bold and progressive, but also manage to avoid all the political difficulties that come with major spending commitments.

Take, for example, your proposal to extend the number of directly elected local mayors within Britain's cities. I'm sure the argument that a elected mayor for Birmingham would provide greater leadership and identity for the city and help improve accountability seems like a rather seductive one. Who could possible object to the idea that local government should “get praise when they get it right and blame when they get it wrong”? It's a shamelessly populist idea : so shameless and so populist that your fellow member of Parliament George Galloway has described a referendum for an elected mayor in Tower Hamlets as “a mighty blow for democracy”.

If that doesn't give you at least some pause for thought, then perhaps it should.

Now admittedly, 25 of the 37 referenda to establish an elected mayor in English local authorities have been rejected and last year the people of Stoke-on-Trent voted to abolish the post of mayor in their city. But actually its not the scepticism of much of the electorate and their unwillingness so far to embrace the idea of elected mayors that is the greatest problem with your pronouncement in Birmingham, or Galloway's rhetoric in Tower Hamlets for that matter. What you both have ignored is the experience of 'greater leadership' within at least one of the 12 boroughs and cities that have actually adopted this particular method of local authority administration.

And no, for once I'm not talking about your friend Boris and the regional London government he leads. I mean a local mayor and a political opponent, a New Labour loyalist who has held power in one of the most deprived east London boroughs since 2002.

You'll remember Newham, of course. It was the first place you visited after your election as Conservative leader, for a photo opportunity with the ill-fated Ray Lewis of Eastside Young Leaders Academy. The name of the borough's mayor may be only vaguely familiar, however. You might have heard it in passing when the subject of the Olympics comes up, but by and large Sir Robin Wales is a big fish in a small and and generally neglected backwater.

If only many of us who live here in the borough had realised eight years ago what we were letting ourselves in for when only 26% of the population turned about to vote in the referendum for a directly elected mayor, there might have been some actual concerted campaigning in favour of a 'no' vote. For far from helping to improve local accountability, as you have claimed, the direct election of our local mayor has seen the council turn into something akin to a eighteenth-century monarchy.

For all intents and purposes, Mayor Sir Robin Wales is Newham council. No substantive decisions can be made without him but for an organisation the size of a local authority to function at all, many decisions must inevitably be made in his absence. The result is that every stratum of the council seeks to anticipate what the layer above might be thinking, all the way to the those closest to the brooding, ill-tempered and unpredictable ruler. Timidity crushes initiative, fear ingrains institutional inertia, culminating in a mixture of incompetence and officiousness . This isn't the product of some great conspiracy - it's just that everyone below the man at the top has the nominal trappings of power but none of the authority to make it meaningful. Those prepared to play safe and ingratiate themselves with the people immediately above them seem to survive, which probably explains the unbelievable mediocrity of some of the middle management within the council. Inventiveness and courage are just not worth risking a public sector pension for.

I'm sure you are already thinking this is an exaggeration. Not every borough or city that has adopted a directly elected mayor can possibly be like this. Perhaps that's true – I can only speak from experience. And what has happened, you might ask, to the backbench councillors providing the checks and balances of scrutiny and overview?

That would indeed be a good question. The trouble is that 93% of them are members of the same party in an area where they don't so much count the local vote as weigh it. I realise, of course, that Newham isn't alone in this respect: there are Labour and Tory councils around the country that dominate local political life and face little or no opposition. But creating a post as powerful as an elected mayor within such an environment, in Newham or anywhere else, simply makes matters worse.

With little apparent need to fight for votes, local politics loses its vibrancy and becomes little more than a struggle to secure the posts of Cabinet or executive member or 'lead councillor', which all attract a financial reward. Indeed, many of those who hold such positions in Newham are paid considerably more for representing their constituents than the average local wage. It's understandable that the last person an ambitious councillor in the majority-party wants to upset is a Mayor who controls this patronage and the same is true of those who have become accustomed to describing their full-time job as 'councillor'. Scrutiny and overview are not worth risking a demotion, political exile or the dole for.

Now I can guess what you are thinking – the people of Newham chose to have a directly elected mayor through an expression of the democratic will and that should be respected. Well, some did anyway. But one difficulty we face is that it is almost impossible for us to change the way we are governed if we decided we are no longer happy with the experiment of a directly elected mayor. Legislation isn't much help: even if a petition was raised, the council would have to give its permission for a new referendum and, as I mentioned earlier, Sir Robin Wales effectively is Newham council. Take a guess what the response would be. Moreover, all the opposition parties, including your own, promised at the last council elections to back the call for a new plebiscite but this has amounted to nothing. Even the simple question of whether there is a serious candidate to face Wales at next May's elections has been met with a deafening silence.

Let me upfront - I won't be voting Conservative at the forthcoming election. In fact, as I already know who my MP will be after May 2010, I'm not sure I'll be voting at all. But for all of the reasons I've given in this letter and because there is at least a possibility that you may become Prime Minister next year, I would urge far greater caution before calling for more directly elected mayors.

It might seem like a seductive idea, but I wouldn't wish the fate we face in this corner of east London to befall local voters in any other parts of the country.

You take care now.


1 Comment:

Mike Law said...

Nice letter... you should send it. Not that it'll do much good as I've made most of these points to the Tories to no avail.

I particularly like the point you make about how Wales' method of governance stifles initiative among certain tiers of council management - I may nick that for a future letter.

I really do believe that the only way forward is for an independent mayoral candidate to stand running on a manifesto that will include:

A referendum on the Mayoral system of governance;
A promise to include community forums and other designated bodies in the decision making process; and,
The full and transparent publication of all contract and financial obligations that the administration enters into on behalf of the people of Newham.


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