John Harris

Journalist & Author

Elected city mayors: the delusions and dangers of power freak politics | John Harris

A comfy consensus has been reached on the merits of elected mayors, despite an absence of any real debate on the issue

The north-south divide, the tyranny of the City, the decline of mainstream politics, and more: to listen to a range of voices that have now settled into comfy consensus, no end of British problems can be solved by the introduction of elected mayors.

Strange that such a unanimous chorus should be going up just as Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are again proving that the first casualty of mayoral elections may be serious politics. But anyway, 3 May will see referendums on the adoption of directly elected mayors in another 11 cities, including Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, imposed by central government and apparently supported by the entire political establishment.

What powers might they possess? From the minister in charge, the assuredly modernised Greg Clark, there have been only vague half-ideas. Even the idea’s supporters admit than in most places, real debate has failed to materialise. Liverpool, though, has decided to jump straight in, and nominations closed last week. By way of heralding a fresh start, all 12 candidates are white men, the frontrunner is the current leader of the city’s Labour council, and as if to decisively push things into the 21st century, the field also includes Tony Mulhearn, whose had his last turn on the national stage when he and Derek Hatton were pioneering municipal Trotksyism. How any of this is meant to get Liverpool going is anyone’s guess.

It also fits with the dreary, monocultural history of the elected mayors we’ve had so far. Maybe it’s down to the way that, to quote one of the Liverpudlian candidates, “big personality politics appeals to testosterone-charged male egos”. For all the claims that mayoral contests can weaken the grip of party bureaucracies, it’s probably also traceable to the fact the usual machines remain very powerful. Whatever, the figures are remarkable: of the 14 people currently serving as elected mayors in England, two are women and only one is from an ethnic minority. Much the same picture applies in Salford, where a referendum in January saw a “yes” vote on an 18% turnout, leading to an election this May. Out of a field of 10, only two candidates are women, and all are white.

Meanwhile, up in Doncaster, they are looking forward to a vote on whether to keep their mayoral system, introduced in 2001 in the wake of the infamous “Donnygate” council corruption scandal. The present incumbent is Peter Davies, of the English Democrats, who won the job in 2009, with 22% of first preferences on a 36% turnout (that is, 8% of the total electorate). Following on from the amazingly troubled tenure of his predecessor, he then commenced three years of misrule: among his greatest hits are the claim that there is “no such thing as child poverty” and the suggestion that Britain could learn about something about family values from the Taliban.

In 2010, the audit commission declared that Davies lacked “the political skills to build and maintain consensus” and acknowledged that his public statements had served “to worry sections of the community who are already vulnerable”. Eric Pickles duly sent a team of commissioners to South Yorkshire to “support, challenge and monitor” the running of the town and report back to Whitehall – an arrangement that remains in place.

This is what happens when two very dangerous factors collide: low and unrepresentative turnouts and powers that can be exercised with surprisingly little scrutiny, let alone checks and balances (both Davies and Doncaster’s previous mayor have ignored votes of no confidence). Note also that contrary to all those claims that elected mayors are ideally positioned to lead local economic revivals, there is no evidence to this effect, nor any proof that mayors’ arrival on the political scene increases political engagement – indeed, if the narcissistic tedium that currently grips the London contest is anything to go by, sooner or later you may well get the opposite.

Can we at last recognise the risks and delusions of Superman politics, whether national or local? In Birmingham, the current “No” campaign is titled “Vote No to a Power Freak”, and local nerves are being jangled by the momentum behind two of the Labour contenders: Liam Byrne, who has some claim to being New Labour circa 2001 incarnate; and Siôn Simon, last seen establishing his credentials for high office with his miserable online spoof of David Cameron’s “webcameron” wheeze. Neither looks like the kind of figure who might single-handedly lead a city to unheard-of heights of renown and success.

By contrast, look at Manchester, whose spectacular regeneration has been accomplished with the leadership of a boring old traditional city council, and where plenty of local opinion is completely bamboozled by the imposition of a mayoral referendum. “Structural change rarely does anything other than take time and energy away from more important things,” reckons its eminently successful leader, Richard Leese. “What is on offer at the moment does not – in any way, shape or form – help us with what we want to do.”

Quite so. What the great mayoral delusion really highlights is the modern establishment’s talent for messing with things for the sake of it, with no sense of history, experience, or even clarity about what exactly they want. All that, and dangers that have barely even been talked about.

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