It seems any argument between supporters and opponents of elected mayors sooner or later reaches an impasse when each side declares their preferred model of local governance is ‘more democratic’ than the other.
For the ‘yes’ side, the principle of each and every voter having a direct say in who leads the city is seen as irrefutable proof that the democratic gods are on their side.
The nay-sayers dismiss this, pointing out that voters already elect the councillors who currently make that choice, and a democratic mandate therefore runs like a thread from the ballot box to the leader’s office.
What’s more, say those who object to mayors, local councillors are more in touch with the issues in their neighbourhoods, and therefore more closely represent the key concerns of the electorate than a distant mayor ever could. These individual ward-level local concerns together forma coherent vision for the city which the leader is then charged with delivering, they say. In other words, we have a collective, collaborative and participative local government democracy which is now threatened by the spectre of elected mayors.
It’s the sheer wrong-headedness of this argument that has helped form my view that our big cities urgently need elected mayors – and none more so than Birmingham. For me, it’s less about some circular argument over which system is more or less ‘democratic’. Rather, it’s about which system better enables our would-be leaders to develop, articulate and deliver a vision for the whole city.
Fans of the current system cling nostalgically to an idea that voters turn out in their thousands to vote for Councillor Fred Bloggs, who at the same time as campaigning to clean up the dog mess in the local rec is also the guardian of a vision that will drive the fortunes of the second largest city in the seventh richest country on the planet. Presumably, then, voters in local elections are now frantically weighing up all the issues of importance to their street and district, while carefully assessing the visions offered for the future of this great city?
The evidence against this rose-tinted view of a perfect English democracy is overwhelming.
If it were true, local issues would rarely – if ever – be trumped by national concerns. The relationship between voters and their three local councillors would ensure that the travails or triumphs of the current national government would have negligible impact on voting decisions locally.
We know, of course, that this is bunkum. Local elections are of interest to the national media precisely because voters have national issues in mind when they go to vote – whatever the election. Could that be because their national leaders are far more visible than their local ones? Could it be because they see little evidence of the effectiveness of local politics?
Why else has Birmingham been ruled by a Tory-Lib Dem coalition for the past eight years? This industrial, working class city was run by Labour for decades until Tony Blair invaded Iraq and drove away enough traditional supporters to upset the balance of power in Birmingham.
Of course, there are those local councillors whose effectiveness at a neighbourhood level (or patronage of a special interest group) earns them a staying power that can sometimes resist national swings. These are often the ones who rise up the greasy pole to cabinet positions with power over the whole city – but who then therefore owe allegiance not to the city as a whole but to fellow councillors and a handful of local voters.
And the arguments of the local government nostalgists would stand up better if they could point to the city wide manifestos that each party must presumably produce annually to help voters understand their bigger visions for Birmingham.
Sadly, manifestos are as rare as silverware in Birmingham City’s trophy cabinet. Birmingham went for years without any party bothering to publish a manifesto to tell its city story. Just this year, Labour put together a comprehensive manifesto that sticks out precisely because of its rarity – and it’s no coincidence that Labour is the only party taking the mayoral referendum seriously. The ruling Tories and Lib Dems didn’t trouble Prontaprint with even a modest manifesto document – despite needing to pull out every trick in the book to avoid electoral defeat this year.
It’s no wonder the electorate doesn’t care. Many local politicians under the current system clearly don’t really care either. As long as they can ride the national mood to get into power, and then do the deals with fellow councillors to stay there, they don’t need the inconvenience of setting out an ambitious city vision that they’ll be judged against.
So we end up with a mix of broadly two types of councillors. The opportunists who ride the coat-tails of national political sentiment, and the hyperlocal fixers whose neighbourhood support bases win them positions of power over the whole city.
Neither group has to worry about telling a story about the city as a whole in order to get elected.
Neither has to worry about issues that don’t affect their own wards.
Neither has to worry about being judged against manifesto commitments they didn’t break -because they didn’t make them in the first place.
I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough for Birmingham.
Yes, I want councillors on the ground looking after the immediate concerns and aspirations of their constituents, but I want them to be doing that in a city that is making its way in the UK and in the world. The former depends on the latter – and that’s why a city vision HAS to have more prominence and ownership than it does currently.
Someone needs to set out a compelling vision for this city. That vision has to be tested, informed and ultimately endorsed by the electorate.
This person then has to use this mandate to go out and deliver the vision they’ve promised.
For me, there’s no choice – this person has to be an elected mayor.