In May, England's largest cities will be asked whether or not they want directly-elected Mayors. This is an opportunity to reinvigorate English democracy, and combat the centralized system of governance that has suffocated the nation for far too long.
This spring’s mayoral referendums give voters in England’s major cities a rare and historic opportunity to transform the body politic. Directly-elected mayors are not, of course, a panacea for all the failings of our political system, but their introduction would undoubtedly improve the quality and everyday experience of democratic life in the country.
A vote for directly-elected mayors would help reanimate and reinvigorate English democracy by opening up important new sites of power in which politics would once again matter in places outside the capital. And since strong leadership and clear lines of accountability are a quid pro quo for greater localism, mayors are essential if we are to break with the suffocating centralized system of government that has prevailed in England for far too long. Conceived as a reform for improving the governance of England the creation of elected mayors would also provide a partial answer to the increasingly vexatious ‘English Question’.
Reconnecting voters and politicians
The democratic renewal case for mayors is not based on unrealistic claims about boosting turnout – for the record the international evidence suggests that mayoral contests often do encourage higher levels of voter participation though the effects are not dramatic - but rather in the belief that they will help transform England’s stale political culture more broadly.
Their contribution to the struggle against growing public indifference to and disengagement from local politics stems from the highly visible and accountable form of political leadership they provide. By virtue of being directly-elected, mayors are known to a far greater proportion of the local electorate than are council leaders selected by majority parties. A poll conducted shortly after mayors were introduced found that, on average, 57% of voters in mayoral areas could name their mayor, which contrasts sharply with a recent Institute for Government survey, which revealed that a staggering 92% of respondents could not name their local council leader.
Such profile enables mayors to develop a strong and more personal relationship with their constituents and crucially empowers local citizens by ensuring they have a clear sense of who is in charge and who they can turn to. Consequently many mayors hold open surgeries, appear on phone-ins and deal directly with their constituents, generating a far more tangible sense of connection between voters and their elected representatives than the traditional council local leader model allows for.
Embodying the impersonal processes and machinery of local government in one figure – and one whom people feel they can hold accountable for council decisions – could help rebuild the fabric of local civic life and help channel people’s sense of identification with the locality in which they live into political interest and awareness. Few who have observed the experience of the mayoralty in London can doubt that a localised demos has come into being (or more accurately been reborn) in our capital. This year’s battle for London’s town hall – waged over things that genuinely matter to Londoners like tube and bus fares, alongside the personal squabbles between Ken and Boris – has got people talking about politics once again. While in Leicester and Torbay the most recent local authority mayoral election debates were shown on regional BBC television, providing an unprecedented level of exposure for local politics. This kind of visibility is a prerequisite for accountability. If voters don’t know who they are passing judgement on then they can hardly pass judgement at all.
Mayors and the new politics
Polls regularly show that the public is turned off by petty partisan politics. Since mayors are accountable to the local electorate and not to party groups they can help erode the reach of such tribalism. Moreover, by opening up new sites of power mayors could provide an important new route into politics for people from different backgrounds and thus help counter public concerns about the monolithic character of the traditional political class. For instance of the 22 people who have so far held mayoral office in English local authorities, seven have been independents. In stark contrast the 2010 general election produced just one independent MP out of a total of 650.
These independents have not signalled the triumph of crude populism over local party politics, but have instead allowed a number of individuals, who were outside the charmed circles of the local political networks, to emerge and make an impact on local political life. Should mayoral governance come to our major cities it would give non party-political hot shots from the business and charitable sectors a fighting chance of leading them.
Traditionalists in the political parties fear that the mayoral model will give an unwanted lease of life to independent and maverick candidates. But the truth is that the democratic process is enriched by such unpredictability. The mayoral grit in the oyster might actually be good for the local parties who will need to adapt and respond to a political process they have less control over. For instance it could encourage them to embrace other democratic innovations such as primaries in order to reach out to a wider pool of local talent.
Mayors would not simply alter the look and feel of local politics but could have a transformative effect on Westminster too. Mayors who cut their teeth in Birmingham and elsewhere may later choose to enter national politics and would bring with them fresh perspectives that could make a big impact on national debate. And as we have seen in the case of Peter Soulsby and Sion Simon (two MPs who resigned their seats to fight for the mayoralty of Leicester and Birmingham respectively) the office of mayor might also attract national politicians back to their localities – a migration that is simply inconceivable under the current council leader model. In short, mayors in each of our major cities would represent a concrete move towards a more plural and layered polity.
Sceptics suggest that far from strengthening local democracy, elected mayors will diminish it. They argue that politics will become a beauty contest waged between celebrities, or worse mavericks, and that power will be corrosively concentrated in the hands of one person. These claims do not really stand up. While it is true that direct election provides the potential to throw up mavericks few mayoral elections have, in fact, produced policy-light contests. The current contest for the London mayoralty between two larger-than-life personalities presents voters with a choice between both style and substance. Moreover it is mistaken to assume that an election that focuses to some degree on an individual’s character is somehow flawed or undemocratic in content. Questions of personality and leadership style matter a greater deal to the electorate – they are intimately interwoven with issues about trust, authenticity, and provide voters with valuable information about how leaders will respond to unforeseeable events. Not everything can be covered by manifesto pledges.
Equally the charge that mayors concentrate too much power in one individual often fails to appreciate that mayors are directly accountable to the electorate. If voters don’t like the direction a mayor takes, they at least have an opportunity to chuck them out of office on election-day. In contrast, council leaders who have acquired significant powers in recent years – for instance over cabinet appointments and the introduction of four-year terms – lack the accountability that comes from direct election. What is clear, however, is that any attempt to strengthen the executive capacity – be it through mayors or other models – needs to be tempered with corresponding reforms to the scrutiny role of councils so that there are sufficient checks and balances in play. A recall mechanism is another safeguard that should be put in place to ensure that mayors accused of unethical conduct can be removed from office between elections.
Delivery and democracy
There is another much overlooked reason why directly-elected mayors will help address the democratic deficit: as the most effective and most appropriate model of leadership for meeting the challenge of contemporary governance and service delivery, mayors offer the best chance of ensuring that elected politicians actually deliver on their election promises.
This matters since the biggest driver of cynicism in politics is the tendency for politicians to over-promise during campaigns and then fail to meet expectations in office. Of course politicians will always tend to overplay their hand, whatever constitutional arrangements are in place, but international evidence and England’s own experience of directly- elected mayors demonstrate that the model really can make a positive and tangible difference to the way local communities are governed. Perhaps this is why 69 per cent of Londoners say that the capital is a better city for having a mayor.
Tackling the curse of English centralism
But the strongest case for mayors is that they offer the best chance of tackling England’s most profound and stifling democratic deficiency – namely the excessive levels of centralization that characterize its governance. Indeed once in place there is every chance they would herald a radical devolutionary shift in powers from Whitehall to the localities of England. Why? Firstly, because ministers are more willing to devolve powers and responsibilities downwards if these powers are exercised by strong and capable political leadership. Secondly, ministers are more likely to devolve real powers if they can be assured that there are clear lines of accountability in place so that – should anything go wrong at the local level – they will not be blamed for things they no longer control.
For ministers, the great virtue of elected mayors is that they provide the highly visible and accountable form of leadership that is needed to enable powers to be successfully decentralized within England’s highly nationalized and adversarial political and media culture. The post-war trend of centralization, combined with an active national media focused almost exclusively on politics in Westminster, has ingrained a view within English political life that central government is responsible for a great swathe of policy, delivery and coordination issues. Ministers remain reluctant, therefore, to decentralize significant powers while they are held responsible by the public for the performance of the entire public service delivery chain. This would amount to accountability without control.
Conversely, however, ministers are more inclined to devolve power where lines of accountability are much clearer as in the case of the London mayor, where central government has released important powers over, for instance, planning and housing. The method of direct election and the clarity of powers that are associated with this process mean that there is much greater likelihood that local publics will come to view a well known local figure, with clear executive authority, as the person with whom the buck stops. Mayors have real potential therefore to make local politics more accountable, and can, therefore, contribute significantly to the introduction of greater local autonomy.
It is for this reason in particular that all localists should rally behind the mayoral cause. Without them, Westminster will continue to resist calls for far-reaching decentralization. Once in place, however, city mayors could catalyze further democratic reform. The evolutionary nature of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is instructive here. It illustrates how institutions create their own momentum and can relatively quickly gain new powers from the Centre. In this sense the introduction of city mayors should be seen as a ‘process not an event’, a necessary first step along the path to more powerful city-regional mayors, for instance, equipped with significant powers over public services and economic development, and crucially making progress towards achieving the holy grail of localism: greater fiscal autonomy. Such devolutionary momentum would itself hasten the pace of local democratic renewal since political participation rises and falls according to how much power is exercised locally and how much influence institutions have over the lives of voters.
Of all the constitutional reforms being pursued by the coalition government, directly elected mayors have the most potential to deliver a lasting democratic legacy. Their introduction in our towns and cities would at a stroke revive and rejuvenate our political culture and reverse the emasculation of local politics that has taken place over the last 30 years.
Mayors might not answer the West Lothian Question – a reference to the anomaly that allows non-English MPs to vote on English matters – but by enabling England to be governed in a far less centralized fashion the mayoral agenda has the potential to form an important part of a broader programme for democratizing the politics of England.
First published by the Institute for Government as part of their edited collection What can elected mayors do for our cities?
 See for instance Curtis Wood, ‘Voter turnout in city elections’, Urban Affairs Review November 2002 vol. 38 no. 2 209-231