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Metro Mayors: how to big-up without overselling

Metro Mayors: how to big-up without overselling

🕔21.Mar 2017

Tomorrow sees the second of four Public Debates with all five main Mayoral candidates. It takes place in Coventry, a city where the idea of having a Mayor and being part of a Combined Authority with Birmingham remains challenging. Chris Game looks at the issue of selling Metro Mayors and what turnout precedents tell us. 

So, no General Election on May 4th. It must be true, because the Daily Mail confirmed it – in Monday’s 1.12 pm online edition. It had all been “speculation” and “rumours” – like, presumably, those in the Mail’s 7.59 am edition, headed “Will the PM call an election for May 4th?”

The surprise, considering that not calling an early election is one of the few subjects on which Theresa May has been utterly consistent, would have been if she had.

And my sole reason for raising it at all is the one mentioned at the end of my previous blog – that a coinciding General Election would have significantly increased the likely turnout in the mayoral elections, and consequently increased the profile, legitimacy and general political clout of both the new office and its first incumbents.

It’s easy to underrate the political importance of percentage election turnouts – or, more specifically, the consistently, verging on embarrassingly, low turnouts in most UK local elections.

The figures aren’t as dire as is sometimes alleged, but overall turnouts in most years when there isn’t a coinciding General Election tend to be nearer 30% than 40%, considerably adrift of those in most Western European countries.

Which is worrying, or certainly should be, for local councillors; but, for MPs, ministers and civil servants, it can be readily accessible ammunition. If you don’t believe me, watch the Yes, Minister episodes in which Jim Hacker tries to ‘reform’ local government: ‘the Challenge’ and ‘Power to the People’.

It’s the one figure that those in central government know, or think they know, about local government: that few of us vote for it.

From which they can infer that no one cares that much, or even knows that much about what it does. And in turn that no one will protest much when we in London increasingly control what councils can do and cut what they can spend.

Besides, we all know that, even if local politicians had more money and discretionary powers, they’re not trusted by their own voters, and they’d act irresponsibly.

We’re not, then, going to see on 4 May the probably 60-65% turnout that was the figure for the metropolitan West Midlands in the 2015 General Election. That would have enabled the new Mayor, in his or her meetings with ministers, to claim to be representing not only nearly 2 million electors, but perhaps 1 million who had actually participated in their election.

And then there’s the ‘Cabinet of Mayors’, or whatever vehicle the new Mayors devise, hopefully pretty quickly, to represent their Combined Authorities’ joint interests to ministers. With a combined electorate of 6.7 million, they could have claimed to be speaking for at least 3 million actual voters – or more (I’m guessing here) than it took to elect all Government ministers put together. A pretty big number, anyway.

But since that’s not going to happen, what can we expect on May 4?  A former student asked me recently what the average turnout had been in all the mayoral elections dating back to Ken Livingstone’s first election as London Mayor in 2000. 38.7%, I told him, or thereabouts.

He was surprised, I could tell – and less by the confirmation that I was indeed one of that small band of seriously sad people who know such things than by the figure itself.  And of course he was right to be.

He’d been trying to sense the likely turnout on May 4, when in the four metropolitan and unitary Combined Authority areas – West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, and Tees Valley – there are no other significant elections taking place.

This year in the four-year local electoral cycle is shire county councils’ year, which should give a bit of a turnout boost to the mayoral elections in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and West of England, but won’t help the others.








And, if I’d had my table with me, I could have shown him how that overall 38.7% included the relatively respectable totals when mayoral polls had coincided with other elections, and particularly a so-called ‘first-order’ national (General) election, when voters reckon considerably more is at stake.

When ‘only’ a mayoralty has been the prize – merely the elected political leadership of one’s city, town or borough – the turnouts have been almost invariably feeble. And those have been in established local authorities for whose councillors electors have been voting (or not voting) for years, rather than new, huge, amorphous, unelected bodies that most voters have barely heard of.

Or businesses, whose interests and demands – more, and more skilled, jobs; economic growth and investment; improved transport and infrastructure – these Combined Authorities have been so much about; indeed, too much about, in the view of some.

Yet, in a Chambers of Commerce poll of 500 businesses, “Half of West Midlands firms didn’t even know we are electing a mayor”. If the principal immediate beneficiaries don’t know what’s going on, it’s tough expecting the rest of us to.

The rest of us, insofar as we have any awareness of Metro Mayors at all, have the reverse problem. We fondly, and understandably, imagine that these new politicians, who we didn’t ask for but are told will be good for us, will have powers to do the things that we think are most urgent and that we’d like them to do.

Unfortunately not, or certainly not at present. You may recall Paul Dale (who?, Ed) reporting in these columns last summer the findings of a metro mayor poll by Centre for Cities, the think tank and one of the Partners in the ongoing West Mids Elects debates, the second of which is in Coventry tomorrow evening.

It’s still the most comprehensive poll on the topic, and one key question is now particularly relevant – West Midlands respondents’ ranking of the issues they felt should be the most important priorities for politicians in their city.






Metro mayors weren’t mentioned in the question wording, but they were the subject of the whole poll. Yet, as shown in the chart, only one of these potential voters’ top five priorities – housing – was something that would be among the responsibilities devolved either to a West Midlands metro mayor or even the Combined Authority.

Aspects of health and social care, schools and education, and emergency services may possibly be devolved in the future. But on May 8 most of the Mayor’s attention will go to business support and inward investment, transport, colleges and adult skills that at most only about one in 20 possible voters have as their priorities.

It’s a big disjunction and on the face of it a recipe for disillusionment. Also a major dilemma for those, like the Partners and organisers of the West Mids Elects debates, led by Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson: how to ‘big-up’ the potential of this new, and by previous standards radical, exercise in devolution without misrepresenting and overselling it.

It’s the dilemma that the Institute for Government (IfG)’s organisers of this week’s ‘Local Leadership event’ – ‘How will new mayors work with Whitehall to improve their city-regions?’ – confronted head-on, rehearsing at the outset the IfG case that elected Mayors represent the best chance to date, and the best chance we’re likely to see, of decentralising real power and progress to England’s city regions.

The case rests on five key assertions:

  • These Mayors of city regions are necessarily different from either existing Mayors of single towns or cities, or Mayors proposed and rejected in past referendums.
  • They’ll provide visible, legitimate and accountable leadership – personally recognisable to the millions of people they represent, and taken seriously on the national stage by ministers and civil servants, the more so if and when they act in concert.
  • They’ll be leaders of place, not of councils; able to lead strategic change across the broader, functional economic areas in which people nowadays work and live their lives – a case, incidentally, that works better for the WMCA, with its three Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) areas, than for some of the other more tightly-drawn city regions.
  • They’ll be able to wield what is known as ‘soft power’, with better access to ministers than the mainly indirectly elected leaders of individual councils, and able too to convene region-wide meetings of public sector leaders and other bodies.
  • They’ll be outward-facing and future-focused – able to lead trade missions, attract inward investment, and work with other Metro Mayors to secure, as in London, more devolved powers, both functional and financial, in the future.

In short, just because they may not be able to do something about your priority service on May 8 doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be able to in the future.

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