Some people have found it a little odd that Liberal Democrats don’t support elected mayors for England’s cities. The Lib Dems have supported many kinds of electoral reform, but always with the purpose of making government better. I want to explain my reasons why I don’t believe that elected mayors will improve things.
1 – Truly strategic thinking needs the power to cross city boundaries.
The economic area that affects Nottingham extends beyond Nottingham city. A mayor needs ability to make strategic decisions that cover the greater economic area. For example, the transport infrastructure that, is so important to Nottingham, would not be fully under the mayor’s control. Most of the major routes into Nottingham are the responsibility of the county council, not city council, and many of the employees who work for Nottingham’s biggest companies live out the city. I would therefore support a mayor who had responsibility for the county of Nottinghamshire, or even the East Midlands region.
2 – Mayors need greater scrutiny
The current proposal sees mayors being able to make decisions without the backing of the majority of councillors. They can carry things, such as the budget, with just a one-third vote. This is somewhat undemocratic- though I accept the argument that it could seem more democratic due to the fact the mayor is directly elected.
The London mayoral system has an elected assembly to hold the mayor to account and seems a much more robust system than having a traditional council with a mayor bolted on. I would support a mayor who had a regional assembly to answer to. Why on earth are we trying to apply the American mayoral system to an existing council, which will only be able to veto mayoral policies with a two-thirds vote against the mayor?
3 – We don’t know what we’re getting
I’m not talking about the person who will be elected, but the powers he/she will have. Precisely what those powers are is unclear at this point. It seems quite a loose (at best) idea, (at worst) could be quite dangerous, to vote on someone being given a raft of powers without knowing what those powers are.
The government have tried to do something truly progressive by waiting to see what the newly elected mayors pledge to do in their manifestos, and what the people give them a mandate to do, before deciding on the powers they will have. But how can you vote on something without really knowing what that something is?
4 – What if the mayor performs badly?
There’s nothing that can be done until the end of their term. I realise you also get councillors who perform badly, but in most parts of the country wards have at least two councillors, and we’ve seen plenty of examples of a very competent councillor supporting a less able colleague. There is no second mayor. If a council leader performs badly the councillors can vote to elect a new one, but no such ability exists with this mayoral proposal.
Japan has a Local Autonomy Law which means that a local assembly can vote to oust a mayor, but it does so knowing that it will trigger both a mayoral election and it desolves the assembly. This means that members of the assembly also have to stand for re-election. The system, which is also known as Mutually Assured Destruction means that an assembly won’t take the decision to get rid of their mayor lightly. It seems to be the kind of reformist idea which I would back.
5 – City mayors centralise decision making away from local councillors.
It’s ironic that the referendums on elected mayors are taking place in the name of localism. Whilst it’s likely that more powers will be devolved to cities with mayors, the decisions on how to use that power will not be in the hands of councillors who know their wards well – it will be centralised with the mayor. This quirk, in effect, simply moves power away from people.
If the mayoral model is to work well we need to find a way that local councillor’s retain the ability to act in the interests of their residents. The system which we’re voting on would be equivalent to directly electing the Prime Minister without him/her having to consult the MPs we elect to represent our local needs.
I can see a stage, the development of the mayoral model, that I would be prepared to back a mayor: we’re not there yet.
I’ve been asked by people whether the Lib Dems will stand a candidate for mayor, as we have supported the ‘no’ campaign. Of course we will. If the people choose this as the way they want their council being run, then so be it; we won’t simply remove ourselves from the political process. After all, we don’t support first-past-the-post, but it is the system we have to work with.
In Nottingham, Labour also agree that elected mayors are a bad idea, but they have argued their case by appealing to people’s fears using emotive half-truths. This has been to the detriment of the ‘no’ campaign. To correct some of their statements :
The Sheriff of Nottingham will not necessarily disappear. A mayor could choose to remove that role, but I can’t see why they would do so.
You are not being asked to decide on proportional representation. It’s true that a version of STV (single transferable vote) will be used to elect the mayor, but the result is not PR. By definition the result of a PR vote is that the representation would be proportionate to the votes cast for particular parties/candidates. Voting on a single person to represent the entire electorate, can not be proportionate.
Just because the BNP and English Defense League support the ‘yes’ campaign, does not make it any more likely that you will end up with a racist mayor. The BNP have never done well in elections here, and the second preference votes mean it’s even more unlikely that an extreme party would be elected.
The mayor would not cost £1 million. Let’s look at costs:
Referendum: £300k (which is a one-off cost)
Mayoral election: £200k (it would be £400k, but it’s held on the same day as the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, so the cost will be shared)
Salary: £65k a year, £260k for full term. (based on what other mayors, in other cities receive)
Office costs: £0 (the mayor can simply use the offices of the leader of the council, which will be a redundant role)
Leader and Deputy Leader allowance: saving £46k a year, £184k for a full term. (it’s a saving because those roles are no-longer needed)
Total cost of a four year term: £276k even if you add on the initial cost of the referendum, it’s still nowhere near £1m.
So let’s set the record straight and argue the case on facts.
I urge people to vote against having an elected mayor for Nottingham, but let’s keep working to reform the system of local government to give people the real power and localism that they want.