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Elected mayors – some facts to flavour the fantasy

Elected mayors – some facts to flavour the fantasy

🕔12.Apr 2012

I see The Chamberlain Files’ recent guest blogger, Birmingham Lib Dem Councillor Martin Mullaney, has been ordered by the council’s Standards Committee to amend a misleading election leaflet – by sending fresh information to all his Moseley and Kings Heath voters correcting allegations regarding Labour’s council tax proposals.

Councillor Mullaney, it seems, has ‘form’. If he’s prepared to challenge the exacting standards required of election material, it’s hardly surprising that his blogging (April 2 – “The dangers of an elected mayor for Birmingham” ) is at least equally misleading.

In the merciful absence of a blogging standards committee, and with Councillor Mullaney – also the Cabinet Member for Leisure, Sport and Culture – clearly having other things on his plate, it seemed only charitable to offer to correct any misleading impressions on his behalf.  So here goes.

The councillor’s main objections to a directly elected Birmingham Mayor are that s/he would or could be unaccountable, undemocratic, unrepresentative, and incapable. I’ll deal with ‘undemocratic’ first, because, particularly from a serving Cabinet member, it was the allegation that struck me as the most extraordinary:

An elected Mayor could fill the Cabinet with just their family members and we couldn’t stop it. All the elected Mayor requires is a minimum of two elected Councillors in their Cabinet; the rest can be whoever they want.

Taken absolutely literally, this assertion could be true – provided that all the sisters, cousins and aunts appointed to the Pinafore-esque mayoral cabinet were already elected councillors of the authority. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have to stop it, because the law would.

Constitutionally, the ‘executive arrangements’ under a mayor elected by Birmingham voters would be precisely the same as under the present system – in which a council leader is elected in secret by party councillor colleagues, and a policy agenda negotiated, again in secret, between two such party leaders – that Councillor Mullaney regards as more democratic.

The mayor, or council leader, could appoint between two and nine councillors to the executive or cabinet – in just the way that Councillor Mullaney himself was appointed. There were those – like the Institute for Government – who argued strongly that the mayor’s choice of executive talent should be extended to non-councillors, but Ministers vetoed the idea. It may be that the Councillor’s referring to the appointment of non-executive special advisers – in which case, he should make it clear.

The bigger point here, I think, is that much of the hostility of Councillor Mullaney and other anti-mayorists seems aimed at a kind of fantasy mayor: not the mayoral system set out in the Localism Act, but an exaggerated, totalitarian regime conjured up from their fertile imaginations. Hence, presumably, the desperate – and offensive – insinuations that a Yes vote in the May referendum will be tantamount to ushering in a Hitler, Mussolini, or – from Mullaney’s fellow Lib Dem, Councillor Michael Wilkes – some corrupt Capone-puppet mayor from 1920s’ Chicago.

Any serious approach to the referendum choice must acknowledge the nature of the balance involved. The whole point is to create what in the UK would be a novel form of urban political leadership: a set of popularly elected and visibly accountable leaders, with clear mandates, boosted powers and sufficient political clout – locally and nationally – to take major decisions for the benefit of their cities, and potentially for the better, less centralist, government of the country. Of course, therefore, mayoral leadership would be different; otherwise, why bother changing.

At the same time, this mayoral role is defined in legislation, would be exercised, just like the leader/cabinet system, through the council’s constitution, and indeed resembles the existing system in several important ways.

These similarities might usefully have been spelt out more fully in the council’s referendum information booklet, You Decide. However, they include the same decision-making delegations – with decisions taken personally, delegated individually or collectively to Cabinet members, or to officers, as determined by the mayor/leader; the same regulatory committees – Planning, Licensing, Audit – and Overview and Scrutiny arrangements; and the same determination of mayoral/leader remuneration – by full Council, following a recommendation from an independent Remuneration Panel.

Which brings us to the second of Councillor Mullaney’s objections: ‘unaccountability’:

A Mayor could get elected with big promises, only to turn round and rip up their manifesto and impose any policies they liked. They could remove cycle lanes, impose fortnightly rubbish collections or enforce a swingeing congestion charge without anyone being able to stop them.

You’d think a Liberal Democrat might be a touch more hesitant about referring to politicians breaking election pledges. Still, the obvious response here is: you mean, just like leaders and parties can at present?

To which the answer is both Yes and No. Yes, an elected mayor could forget or break election pledges, and yes, seek to introduce new policies not mentioned in a manifesto. Indeed, over a four-year term of office, it would be disappointing if they didn’t develop some new policies. But no, a mayor’s personal mandate and widespread recognisability would increase, rather than decrease, accountability and make such actions far more politically costly.

Again, the mayoral system would be more similar to existing practice than Councillor Mullaney implies. Each year the mayor, or council leader, would present a budget and plans for key services for approval by a majority of the full council.  As at present, we would all have advance notice of the major policy initiatives envisaged by Mullaney, and councillors would have access to background policy papers from officers and policy advisers, enabling them to scrutinise these proposals.

The difference comes with any attempt by the council to amend the mayor’s budget or policy framework. The aim is to create a single strong, accountable executive, not competing executives, and therefore to stall or overturn a key part of the mayor’s strategy would require not just a majority, but at least two-thirds of the council.

Which also means, though, that with a two-thirds majority the council could overturn that strategy, which is precisely the threat that London Assembly members deployed to wring concessions from each of (the then independent) Mayor Ken Livingstone’s early budgets.  So yes, mayors would be powerful, but hardly all-powerful.

Such policy clashes – like the recent one between Doncaster Council and the mayor over library closures – necessarily take place in the full glare of local publicity: the very reverse of decision-making behind closed doors. While it is possible to be accountable, even if most electors don’t know your name, it is almost impossible to avoid, if they do.

Councillor Mullaney labels his third objection ‘unrepresentativeness’:

An elected Mayor could fall seriously ill, or become unable to do the job due to other commitments, or even move to live hundreds of miles away and there would be no way of removing them from power. We’d be stuck for four years with a non-working Mayor.

This time the Councillor’s assertion is misleading because it addresses almost certainly the wrong issue. A mayor would be required to nominate one member of the cabinet as ‘Deputy Mayor’, who would take over in the event of the mayor’s short-term absence. Long-term unavailability would presumably lead to a by-election.

The more serious problem for most people is whether, having directly elected a mayor, we can directly unelect or ‘recall’ them, if we feel they’re acting dishonestly, disreputably, or simply incompetently.

We can’t, of course, get rid of a council leader either, but a majority of councillors can.  That they can’t vote an elected mayor out of office is reasonable, but logically, in what is supposed to be an exercise in direct democracy, the electorate should be able to – and at present we can’t even officially petition for their recall.

This seems to be simple incompetence by Government Ministers. They want us to vote for mayors, and pledged in a January 2011 Impact Assessment that they would introduce a recall mechanism for elected mayors alongside similar provisions for other public officials – presumably MPs, MEPs, Police Commissioners, and possibly councillors. They must surely sense that this issue alone could actually swing referendum votes, yet we’ve heard not a peep.

The probability is that it’s got caught up with, and lost in, the appalling hash the Government is making over introducing a recall provision for MPs, but recall of powerful executive mayors is substantively, as well as politically, a far greater priority.

All of which leaves little time for Councillor Mullaney’s fourth objection – incapability:

An elected Mayor could be someone well known, who could stand on the back of their popularity, without anyone questioning whether they could actually do the job. This happened in Hartlepool where the local people elected the mascot of the local football team – a man in a monkey suit.

First, a word in defence of the gratuitously insulted voters of Hartlepool and Mayor Stuart Drummond, who, since he’s now been twice re-elected, without monkey suit, has presumably proved himself not totally incapable. Certainly his town isn’t, having received the Government’s top Comprehensive Performance Assessment of Excellent or 4-star throughout Mayor Drummond’s period in office – rankings of which Birmingham, sadly, could barely dream.

My last observation, though, has to be the obvious one. Yes, voters can elect incompetents; it’s called the price of democracy – and it’s useful to be reminded of it, especially by a politician who himself is seeking re-election.


Chris Game is Honorary Senior Lecturer, Institute of LocalGovernment Studies (INLOGOV), Universityof Birmingham.

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