Elected mayors – it’s all about the city vision, stupid

Colmore Row, Birmingham

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 form a 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.

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10 Comments on “Elected mayors – it’s all about the city vision, stupid”

  1. davidhiggerson says:

    Who are you calling stupid? 😉

    I fear we will see no votes in a number of cities, partly through vested interests within local government (how proactive have local councillors been in talking up the mayoral vote when canvassing for their own seats?) and partly through poor communication from government.

    The lack of clarity on the powers which might be passed to mayors has provided an ideal opportunity for the no campaign to muddy the waters – Eric Pickles and co should have learnt the lessons from John Prescott’s regional assemblies fiasco in 2004 and made it very clear a) what the mayor will be able to do which the current system can’t and b) worked very hard on spelling that out to regular voters.

    Your post is the best example I’ve seen of setting out everything which is wrong with the current system of politics. I’ve covered politics in the North West and North East and I can’t remember ever seeing a party put our a proper manifesto for what they would do if they won control of a council. Frequently, you’d find councillors of Party X arguing for something in one ward with councillors in Party X in a neighbouring would be opposing – just because they were appealing to voters within a defined area.

    A mayor has the ability to present that city vision (and I’d argue it’s not just cities which need this, but all councils). But they need to know what powers they have to do it.

    Fingers crossed the Government’s open goal doesn’t kill off the proposal at the polls.

    • Marc Reeves says:

      Absolutely agree. The government is too divided within itself for the pro-mayor camp (even if it is led by the PM) to make much of a noise about the issue.
      The refusal to specify powers for mayors is just about defensible for those of us sad enough to delve in to the technical details of the process, but shows a lack of understanding of the concerns of local voters.

  2. pheman says:

    A thought occurred to me about this referendum: if I have my year right (but I may be a year out) this referendum falls on the 40th anniversary of a previous referendum. Forty years ago (or was it forty-one?), the citizens of the UK were invited to vote as to whether the UK should join the (then) Common Market.

    The reason I was reminded of this anniversary was because of a vivid memory I have of the date of that voting opportunity. I had one of those tear-off desk calendars – a separate small leaf for each day of the working week with the date in large characters in red and the day of the week in smaller characters in black, with a single leaf for both Saturday and Sunday. There was a motto at the base of each day’s leaf. Fascinating coincidence then, and fascinating coincidence now – the motto for the Common Market referendum said (and I quote it exactly), “The easiest way to defer a decision is to say ‘No!'”.

    Seems apposite!

  3. Regionalist says:

    Ken Livingstone made some good points in the Guardian this week about the impact of a mayoral system on democratic engagement(and he should know):
    “When the position of mayor was created it was supposed to re-engage voters in local democracy, but the very personality politics it promoted have ended up turning a lot of Londoners off. I think it degraded political debate…this isn’t a race to elect a chat show host.”

    Livingstone’s other point is that council leaders have to keep others on side and are accountable daily to their councillor colleagues, as opposed to voters, who only get a once in 4 year say to hold the mayor to account. Individual councillors may not engage with their voters as much as they should, but are accessible in a way the mayor of a million strong city could never be. Councillors must handle case work and voters can reach them personally. The worry is that access to an elected mayor could become like access to ministers – open only to multi-national corporations seeking favours. At its worst a mayoral system is a recipe for “sofa government” – cosy chats with the chosen few behind closed doors.

    The other argument for the traditional council system is that as Livingstone says, “through serving on borough and city councils I learned how to run things. If you do away with councils where do people earn their experience?”

    The Leader/Cabinet system Tony Blair introduced reduced this collective apprenticeship by removing powerful service committees through which the next generation of leaders could emerge. A mayoral system will be the next ratchet away from this sort of shared learning and accountability. If we get a “no” vote, Labour should review the current City council cabinet system under the Localism Act. While the mayoral system offers no new powers to the City, its great danger is that it will weaken policy debate internally and be more distant from voters.

    • Marc Reeves says:

      The Boris-Livingstone bunfight has certainly been unedifying and a less than helpful advertisement for mayors, but few Councillors I meet in Birmingham show the current system in a shining light either.
      in terms of access, your argument seems to assume if we have a mayor we’d lose the Councillors. On the contrary, they should refocus on the needs of their neighbourhoods and become genuinely community activists, preferably responsible for the delivery of devolved local services through constituency committees. That’s the essence of my point – we need a single, focussed leadership at the top of a large city like Brum – and a network of locally focused community representatives on the ground.
      Your second point seems to assume that only political time servers are qualified to lead a city, and is beholden to an outdated Victorian model of hierarchical committees meeting endlessly to avoid making decisions.
      In a fast changing world, we need innovation and flexibility, and the environment to create new processes and policies. That environment is best created if you allow people from outside the system to bring their experiences to the table.

  4. telman8 says:

    Very interesting and well-constructed article, Marc. I am just disappointed that I could find nothing within it which gives me cause to enter into an argument with you – you have covered all relevant points.

    I am simply left to say, Well done!

    In many respects, your article encapsulates and condenses the content of the Warwick Report (a must-read for anyone who is genuinely interested in the issue (of elected mayors) as opposed to those who vote according to habit or blinkered political ideology).

    • Marc Reeves says:

      Thanks – Spread the word!

    • Blair Kesseler says:


      You make the case for the problems of the present system very well, but the case for an Elected Mayor is by no means the answer.
      From Thatcher onwards Central Governemnt has taken power away from the Council, decision making power and finance raising power. Until this is restored the ability of all local government to enthuse the electorate will remain low.
      There is, of course, the suggestion that extra powers will be given to and EM – but we don’t know what these may be and I don’t like voting for a pig in a poke!
      If, hgowever, these powers would be granted to the Council (as they may do if a no vote ensues) then we can see how effective our local politicians can be.
      I remember the days when Bosworth and Knight got things done for my city without needing the ‘power’ of being a Mayor. Then the city had the power and they were able to use it.

      Like you, I want to see Birmingham grow on the national and international stage, but the lack of information, especially on scrutiny, will mean I will vote no next week.

      • Marc Reeves says:

        It’s a real chicken and egg argument, for sure, when it comes to mayors.
        I think the ‘pig in a poke’ argument betrays a certain timidity – cap doffing – to London. Cities have spent years demanding they’re given more powers. Now the government has called their bluff and said more powers are there to the kinds of leaders who can really articulate and demand them. Now those cites and some of their politicians complain that they’re not being spoon fed any more.
        As for allowing our current crop of local leaders prove what they can do with more powers – I’d rather let a baby play with a hand grenade.

      • telman8 says:

        In many ways the arguments here are like politics – whether its Labour or Conservative (or whoever), for the proponents, neither is wrong. (Whether that makes either or both of them right is an entirely different matter!)

        So far as the issue with an elected mayor is concerned, and without repeating what has been said elsewhere and as is incorporated in such neutral publications as the Warwick Commission report, I am reminded of one of the basic tenets of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) – “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

        To me, the issue isn’t Party political as such: rather, it is a desperate need to do something different. If that results in removing the issue beyond the realm of Party politics and the mediocrity of Party cronyism, then I am all for it.

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