Republican Kings: the risks and limitations of mayors

Today, London will choose their future mayor, and cities around England will vote on whether they want to switch to the mayoral system. Does democracy benefit from the emphasis on individual character and personal power? 

Anthony Zacharzewski
3 May 2012

Guess whose manifesto begins: "There is nothing more beautiful in a democracy than the love of one's country, to which every vote that slides into the ballot box on election day bears witness." 

I'm sure you guessed it's not Boris Johnson, or Ken Livingstone, or your local district councillor. It's Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Olympian rhetoric is typical of a French presidential candidate. Le peuple français are not electing a bureaucrat-in-chief, they are electing their "republican King"

'H'Angus the monkey' became Hartlepool’s Mayor

"Republican monarchy" might seem very foreign to British voters, but it is the choice they have today in the mayoral elections and referendums. Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone would shy away from the phrase (particularly the word "republican" in Boris's case), but the role of elected mayor gives the same personal mandate, and promotes the same elevation of personality over policy.

The London mayor race is an extreme example, as both candidates are standing for the second time, and the election plays into the political media's twin obsessions of London and potential governing party splits. Nonetheless, the candidates are universally "Ken" and "Boris". We can Back Boris, Sack Boris, be Better Off with Ken or Stop Ken. There's little mention of the parties - Ken Livingstone's manifesto mentions the word "Labour" only 23 times in 100 pages, but he looks like a party hack compared to Boris Johnson, whose six manifesto chapters mention the Conservative Party exactly once - in the logo on the front cover.

Downplaying party identity and focusing on individual character  is exactly how the elected mayor system is meant to work. It is intended to give an individual mandate to an individual - with party machinery a benefit, not a requirement for winning. 

Voters are asked to judge the character of the candidate, not their policies - could they handle the 3 a.m. phone call? In return, they get a leader who has a far stronger personal mandate than the leader of the council, and needs to focus less on internal council politics. 

The benefit of this personal power is that the mayor can become "the leader of the place, not the leader of the council" in the words of Sir Steve Bullock, first council leader then mayor of Lewisham. An elected mayor can give a stronger lead in partnerships and subregional bodies. They can use their profile to be a personal focus to the whole area. As Simon Jenkins has said, this is a particularly important role outside London, where the great provincial cities need a well-known figurehead.

Personalised campaigning also gives a boost to prominent independent candidates. Ken Livingstone and Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets both led insurgent campaigns against their own parties. H'Angus the monkey mascot of Hartlepool FC became Stuart Drummond, the town's three-time mayor. The results show that mayors can take the lift to power, rather than the stairs - fewer than one in ten councillors is an independent, but four of the fourteen serving mayors are.

The Government believes that single leaders can achieve more, and wants to give them more powers. They have proposed City Deals, containing new powers, borrowing rights and autonomy, stored in a box marked "do not open until after the referendums". On the back of that, business leaders are promising voters "£1bn funding jackpots" if they say yes to mayors. It's a bold promise, but given the reality of the mayor's powers, disappointment is almost guaranteed.

Mayors can't change the fact that local government has to handle some very difficult issues, and they are still bound - a little borrowing aside - by the same financial constraints that tie down every council.

The hard times, and the general mood of anger against politics, increase the risks of the personal mandate in the mayoral model. The powers and profile that mean Sir Steve Bullock can push Lewisham forward are the same powers and profile that Peter Davies, the English Democrat Mayor of Doncaster has been using for the last three years. Mayor Davies's administration is perhaps the clearest example of the problems that personalised local government power brings, particularly when facing an oppositional council. 

Mayor Davies has been described by the Audit Commission as not having "the capacity to make the necessary improvements in governance". His approach to running the authority, they say, has "tended to make existing problems worse". At the same time, senior councillors, working with officers, have tried to undermine the office and its holder by setting their own budgets and policies. 

The clash of mayor and council in Doncaster - which a different elected mayor model also produced in Stoke - is one of the risks of elected mayors. The bigger risk is that elected mayors change the public face of the authority, but have no impact on the wider democratic deficit.

Mayor Drummond in Hartlepool won his third term on a turnout of thirty-one percent, only a slight improvement on turnout in council elections before the mayoralty was introduced. Mayor Davies was elected on a turnout of just thirty-five percent, much the same turnout as for the council elections of the year before.  

Such ordinary turnouts, also seen in London, suggest that the personal profile of mayors has not re-energised civic and democratic spirit in their localities. 

Elected mayors can provide personal leadership and representation of a place to Government in a way a council leader cannot. For many places they will be a positive change, but without deeper work to develop democratic governance and participation, they won't be much of a change. 

The challenges of localism - planning and providing services closer to citizens, and taking decisions in in neighbourhoods - push decision-making down below the public, prominent mayor into communities where supporting democratic infrastructure is underfunded or missing. In Liverpool, Sheffield, Bristol and elsewhere, good neighbourhood governance is the reform that is needed most urgently, whoever is running the council.

Anthony Zacharzewski runs the Democratic Society  , a membership organisation promoting and supporting democratic participation and citizenship. Before setting up the Society, he spent ten years in Whitehall and four in local government. 

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData