I was reminded by this post from Chris and Glynis Abbott that like most other Councils, we have to make the decision soon as to what structure Colchester Borough Council should take in the future.
Of course, while we have a choice, to me it appears to be akin to being asked whether you want to be thrown out of a plane or a helicopter. Either option is basically surrendering all of the Council’s powers to a single, extremely-hard-to-remove, individual with the only choice being whether that person gets their powers from a parliamentary or a presidential system. That’s not to say the system we have right now is good, but at least there, any power is only granted for a year and it’s at least a little more diffused amongst the Cabinet than it would be amongst the new options.
Ideally, all Councils would be able to determine for themselves what the best way to operate is (though there’d obviously need to be some sort of loose framework or oversight to ensure democratic accountability) but while it would be nice to deal with abstracts and some Platonic ideal of a council – though perhaps not the structure envisaged in The Republic – those aren’t the options open to us. Instead, we have a model where one person gets to control almost all the Council functions for four years at a time, can appoint a cabinet to assist them from councillors and is either elected directly by the people and called a Mayor, or elected by the Council and called a Leader (also known as a Super-Leader, to distinguish them from current Council Leaders).
(Whatever happens, by the way, we in Colchester will almost certainly lose our current system of electing the Council by thirds every year and replace that with a system that sees all Councillors elected every four years, but that’s perhaps a subject for another post at another time.)
I should be clear that I’m not opposed to the idea of mayors per se – from what I’ve seen in other countries, having a directly-elected person in charge of a city or borough does give a face to local government and may increase public involvement and accountability. However, as with any democratic system there need to be checks and balances on the power of any individual, be it a Mayor, Leader, Governor, Prime Minister or President, and the current systems just don’t give that. For instance, to block various Mayoral proposals under the current systems, such as a budget, requires a two-thirds majority of the Councillors which doesn’t strike me as very democratic. There’s no incentive there to build a consensus, or obtain majority support when all you need is one-third of the Council – and if you can get elected as Mayor or Council Leader, you can likely get that many supporters elected too – to block any attempts to stop you.
But again, I’m dealing with abstracts that aren’t available options. Of the two that are available to us, I would tend to come down on the side of a super-leader as being the least worst option. I might support an elected mayoralty if the powers were reduced and there were greater balances, but with the current situation, I think it’s far too open to getting abused by demagogues. It forcibly creates a situation where the Mayor is above the Council, not part of it, and turns democracy into something that only happens once every four years, rather than an ongoing process. Electing a leader with those powers from the council itself is far from perfect, of course, but it at least ensures that whoever gets that power has widespread support, and will need to keep that support from within the group or groups that elected them to remain in position and capable of working.
But, lets throw it open – there’ll likely be a wider consultation on this in Colchester before it happens, but I’d like to know any other opinions, as I’m not hugely committed to either side of the argument so could well be persuaded if you’ve got a strong argument. What do you think?