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Recall – right for councillors, right for mayors

Recall – right for councillors, right for mayors

🕔11.Jun 2015

Chris Game, from the University of Birmingham, responds to the call by Birmingham city council leader Sir Albert Bore, relayed by internuncio Paul Dale, for a “wide public debate” about a directly elected metro mayor for a West Midlands city regional authority.

Specifically, he argues that, whichever councils eventually agree to propose such an authority to the government, their leaders should accept what the Germans would call the Realpolitik, the political reality, of the situation.

Leaders should agree to an elected metro mayor as broadly delineated in the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill, and, continuing the German theme, lobby for the addition to the Bill of an electoral recall provision.

I referred to the subject briefly at the end of my last blog, but I return via a closely related matter that should also have crossed Sir Albert’s desk in the meantime.

Royal Mail permitting, he and the leaders of England’s 150 other largest local authorities should have received a letter from Kevin Davis, Conservative leader of the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames council, urging them to follow Kingston’s lead in introducing a system of councillor recall.

It’s hardly a new idea. We hear it almost whenever a councillor is revealed as having forgotten to declare a significant pecuniary interest, tweeted death threats to a public figure, assaulted a civilian or bartender, or simply failed persistently to attend council meetings.

It’s come slowly to a head in Kingston, though, after a Liberal Democrat councillor was dismissed from his party group over allegations of falsely claiming more than £3,600 in council tax benefit.

He was eventually convicted, but in the long meantime he continued sitting as a councillor and claiming his £7,500 annual allowance. Moreover, if re-elected, he could have continued doing so even after his conviction, since the offences carried a maximum tariff of less than a three-month prison sentence.

Understandably, many constituents were angry that, under existing rules, there was nothing they could do. In future, though, there could be.

Kingston council will vote next month on innovative proposals to give voters the power to sack their local councillor. Several suggested scenarios could trigger a petition calling for a by-election.

They include a councillor’s attendance at meetings over a municipal year falling below 20%, conviction of a crime resulting in any prison sentence and moving their main residence outside the Royal Borough.

If any of these criteria are met, the council’s monitoring officer would decide whether a petition should be launched on the council website calling for the councillor’s resignation.

Ward electors would have three months to sign the petition, and, if more than a third do so, the councillor would be expected to resign, triggering a by-election.

The ‘expected to resign’ formula obviously reflects the voluntary nature of the procedure at this stage, even if adopted. But Councillor Davis hopes it will be taken up across local government – hence his letter to council leaders – and eventually embodied in legislation.

My guess, though, is that Ministers, however fondly they may currently feel towards the electorate, are likely to be pretty suspicious. For this ‘let’s trust the voters’ business is just the kind of contagious democratic populism they felt had to be stamped on in the last parliament in relation to MPs’ recall.

Some Members – like, as it happens, Kingston’s two MPs, James Berry and London mayoral aspirant, Zac Goldsmith (pictured) – argued for a genuinely voter-initiated recall process.

Instead, we had the Coalition’s half-hearted and unconvincing concession that voters will only get even a chance to remove their MP if s/he is actually jailed or fellow MPs give their permission first.

It was a promising opportunity cynically wasted, so it’s encouraging that the recall principle is being kept in the public eye by this Kingston initiative.

However, if we’re looking at local government, while being able to instigate the recall of councillors is undoubtedly important, it’s surely even more vital to have a robust procedure in place to remove, if necessary, those with serious executive power.

At present, that means particularly the metro mayors that the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill sets as the accountability price for a combined city regional authority to be trusted with Chancellor George Osborne’s “full suite of devolved powers” over transport, policing, economic development, health and social care.

To avoid any possible misunderstanding, I personally don’t believe elected executive mayors constitute the only, or necessarily the best, model of city or county regional leadership and accountability.  It’s much too one-size-fits-all, to my way of thinking.

I wish, therefore, that this and previous governments had cared enough to compare and consider models deployed effectively in other European cities: leaders’ boards, elected and unelected assemblies, standing conferences of key stakeholders.

But that’s not how UK governments work, of any political colour. They use parliamentary majorities backed by a quarter of the registered electorate to enact dogma-driven rather than evidence-based policy, and this lot’s devolution dogma is metro-mayors, at least for city regions.

They were in the manifesto, and they’re now right up-front in the Bill – which is why, as Paul suggested in his blog, George Osborne saw no need to draw any further attention to them in last week’s meeting with West Midlands council leaders.

As the Yorkshire combined authorities discovered the hard way, you don’t get far trying to bluff this Chancellor – and that was before the election manifesto, mandate and Bill.

Much better to try to make the most of what’s on offer, and that should mean including in the legislation an electoral recall procedure.

That’s what Germany did in the early 1990s. Following the country’s reunification, there was throughout the Länder (states) what one commentator described as a “bushfire-like spread of the direct election of mayors”, driven by concerns about performance and democratic deficits.

Bushfires tend not to consult much before they spread, and neither did the Länder governments. They legislated and imposed.

BUT, as a quid pro quo, all the newly mayoral Länder also legislated procedures whereby a sitting mayor could be removed from office through a local referendum – a direct democratic instrument to hold the mayor politically accountable.

It was obviously inspired by the recall mechanism used widely in the US, though, with all mayoral municipalities having elected councils, in some Länder the actual referendum is triggered by, say, a two-thirds majority vote of councillors, rather than by a citizen petition.

In the week when Tower Hamlets voters elect a mayor to replace one they themselves played no direct part in removing, it is worth emphasising the importance of both the existence and accessibility of these recall mechanisms in easing German citizens’ early acceptance of what for most was an alien institution.

They had their teething problems – in Brandenburg in the former East Germany, for instance, whose voters were so taken by their new democratic power that mayoral recall became for a time a new popular sport: ‘Burgermeisterkegeln’ or playing bowling with the mayors.

Generally, though, the prominence given to recall proved both good politics and good government – as surely it would be here.

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