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Elected mayors don’t ‘level up’ anything. It’s time we binned the lot

Directly elected mayors are a fig leaf of democracy. Let’s follow Bristol’s lead and design a fairer system

Natalie Bennett
9 May 2022, 2.14pm

At a referendum last week, voters in Bristol decided to scrap the city's directly elected mayor

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Charles Stirling / Alamy Stock Photo

As I write, the question still being asked about the local and national election results, is: What does this mean for Boris Johnson as prime minister?

That’s partly a function of the extremely limited, weak political coverage in our tycoon-dominated mainstream media. It’s a long-term scar that’s had huge impacts, with politics covered as though it was a tennis match rather than actual issues and choices being explored.

As a former newspaper editor, I understand those pressures – and they’re not easy to overcome. The good news is that the mainstream media becomes less significant by the day – with local, alternative outlets and individual writers becoming more and more important.

Of course, it is also a function of the London-centric nature of the mainstream. Politics is largely covered by lobby journalists, for whom Watford is a distant and exotic place. Local elections are the annual day or two for which they have to notice there is more to the country than Westminster. To their displeasure – it is all so complicated, and not easily reduced into a story of two sides of a see-saw, one being up and one being down.

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The focus on personality is not only the fault of the media. It is also the way the two largest parties have chosen to play the political game for decades. Indeed, it seems to be central to both of their philosophies and approaches.

The idea of a ‘strong leader’, of focusing the campaign on one individual, was not only a hallmark of the 2017 and 2019 general elections. It is also how both parties have sought to tackle the dissatisfaction arising from the extraordinary (on a European scale and in its own terms) concentration of power and resources in Westminster. That’s what I’d say – combined with the undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system – drove the success of the ‘take back control’ slogan in 2017.

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The idea has been presented by both Tory and Labour that elected mayors – one strong leader (usually a man, because the candidates and the winners have overwhelmingly been male) – would, through their charisma, their force of personality, their leadership, be able to stand up to London, fight for their communities, beat smaller local institutions into line.

‘Levelling up’ – the Conservatives’ latest version of this story – also sees an increase in the number of elected mayors as foundational – with York, North Yorkshire, West Midlands and Greater Manchester directly in its sights.

It is a model of leadership. A very popular model of leadership historically (you might call it Victorian), and even today. But not a good one.

That’s because it is essentially a reprise of the ‘strong Westminster’ model. Constituent parts of Greater Manchester, and other similar bodies, have seen power and resources, offices and decision-makers concentrated in a central core – boosting its wealth and influence, while poorer periphery areas have languished. I think of visiting Ashton-under-Lyne several years ago and hearing how ‘local’ services had moved into central Manchester – an utterly unaffordable tram ride away for many who needed them.

‘Strong leader’ has been the model of ‘devolution’ embraced by Conservatives and Labour alike, but one in which there’s increasingly obvious public disenchantment, as demonstrated by another outcome of this week’s elections – albeit one that’s unlikely even to get a footnote in the mainstream media coverage.

Bristol last week voted to get rid of its post of elected mayor. The alternative proposal is for the city to be run by committees of councillors making decisions about different areas, with the decision to take effect in 2024.

Getting views from a variety of perspectives rather than making calls based on individual whim leads to better decisions

It follows a referendum decision by Sheffield last year – after a highly effective, non-partisan campaign led by the It’s Our City group – to move from a cabinet system (where ten or fewer people made all the decisions) to a modern committee model very like Bristol’s. (Sheffield had voted against an elected mayor a few years before. That it had the Sheffield City Region figure imposed on it was only the last tug of George Osborne’s purse strings.)

It's also against the direction of travel around the country. Councils in which no party has overall control are increasingly being run by varying forms of ‘rainbow coalition’. Two places I’ve seen notable success with this involving Greens are Lewes and Herefordshire.

Some of these places had formerly been long-term one-party states. Being forced to get views from a variety of perspectives rather than making calls based on individual whim or diktat has led to better decision-making – something Stein Ringen, a visiting professor with the department of political economy at King’s College London, highlighted in his powerful case for proportional representation in ‘Nation of Devils’.

It is a point of near-universal agreement among the British public that our current political model is broken. Business-as-usual is not an option. And it is clear in Bristol, and Sheffield – and in the campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament and Cornish Assembly, and in Liverpool’s consultation on the future of its own mayor – that the people of England increasingly recognise this.

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