About a year ago, I wrote a post about how Councils were having to choose between two new structures for organising themselves, both of which required a huge concentration of power into the hands of one individual – either a ‘strong leader’ or an elected Mayor.
However, after the General Election and with the Labour Government being replaced with the Coalition, it looked like this would be something that would quickly fall by the wayside, especially with the statement in the Programme for Government which stated that while the twelve largest cities would have the opportunity to decide on whether they wanted elected mayors, for other Councils there was this:
We will give councils a general power of competence
We will allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to.
So, no need to carry on with the old process and a chance for Councils to determine for themselves what the best way of running their affairs would be. Sounds great, until someone realised that they hadn’t got rid of the old legislation requiring Councils to go through the changes, and so that would stay in place until the Localism Bill finally made its way through Parliament. Yes, we have to change systems in 2011, and then change them again in 2012, no doubt all in the name of efficiency.
But that’s not what I really want to write about today. As the local press have reported, we’re now in the process of deciding which of the two options we want (pdf file) – strong leader or elected mayor. While I still remain somewhat ambivalent about the choice being offered in themselves – it’s somewhat akin to being asked whether you want to be thrown out of a plane or out of a helicopter – I think that the elected Mayor option should be strongly opposed and rejected.
This isn’t because I’ve become a fervent supporter of the strong leader system, but because that option is the one that’s easiest to amend in the future when we have the power to do so. I’m opposed to systems where power is concentrated in individuals and I think the best Council structure would be one where power is dispersed back to committees, area panels and the like rather than concentrated upwards. It’s much easier to switch to something entirely new from the strong leader situation than it would be if we had an elected Mayor in place – you’re more likely to get a leader who’ll give up their powers than a Mayor who’ll happily abolish their entire existence.
Of course, that’s at the heart of my opposition to elected Mayors – this idea that concentrating all the power of the Council into one person is somehow a good thing and will solve all problems. (It’s also very similar to the arguments Mussolini and the Fascists used in the 1920s and have been used by anti-democrats ever since – democracy and consensus have failed, only a strongman leader can solve these problems) No matter what living in an elected dictatorship might have taught us, democracy isn’t just about voting every once in a while and then forgetting about it. It’s a system of checks and balances that should be there to prevent, not encourage, the exercise of arbitrary power by anyone. The way the Mayoral system is established in Britain doesn’t allow for this – the Council is reduced to little more than a rubber stamp (just look at how little power the GLA has to check the Mayor of London) and huge chunks of what the Council does can be determined solely by Mayoral fiat.
‘But that’s what we want!’ Some people say. ‘Let the Mayor smash through red tape, bureaucracy, political correctness, council jobsworths and whatever other nonsense the Daily Mail says is blighting the country!’ What they fail to realise they’re assuming in this is that they’ll get a Mayor who agrees with them. I know we all like to assume that the majority agree with us, no matter how silent they might be when asked, but just imagine what someone you fundamentally disagree with could do with that unchecked power over your Borough. Concentrating power into a single post might increase the reward for winning an election, but there’s always that matching risk someone you don’t like will get all that power – all it takes is one good election campaign, one last minute scandal as people go to vote, one slip up in an interview or at a hustings and suddenly someone you never wanted running your life has a huge say over it.
I’m not claiming that the alternatives are perfect political systems for local government, but they do have the advantage of diffusing power, of ensuring everyone has the chance to have their say, not just the coterie who get to surround the winning Mayoral candidate, and there’s a recognition that individuals are fallible. Checks and balances may not lead to the supposedly dynamic and efficient government that seems to be perennially just one reform away from us, but they do keep the arbitrary abuse of power away.
What a monument of human smallness is this idea of the philosopher king. What a contrast between it and the simplicity of humaneness of Socrates, who warned the statesmen against the danger of being dazzled by his own power, excellence, and wisdom, and who tried to teach him what matters most — that we are all frail human beings.
Karl Popper, The Open Society And Its Enemies