What You Can Get Away With » mayors

My dictionary’s had an update. It now says that ‘localism’ is defined as ‘giving people things they do not want; forcing them into changes they do not need’. Yes, ‘executive mayors’ are back, even though just about no one outside of the DCLG has shown any desire for them.

As I wrote back in 2009, this is a spectacularly bad idea. One of the strengths – yes, there are some – of the British system is that there’s a separation between the political and administrative sides of government, both nationally and locally. This smashes down that wall and opens the system to all sorts of formalised corruption when the executive mayor has the power to hire and fire council officers.

True localism would be about allowing councils to determine their own methods of running themselves, not just getting to choose from a restricted list of increasingly dictatorial options offered by the DCLG. A DCLG that actually cared about giving real powers to Councils – as opposed to concentrating what little power they have into individuals – would be working to devolve more powers to them. Instead we get more hare-brained schemes, scribbled on the back of an envelope in opposition and now being imposed despite no one – outside of a small coterie of advisers who’ve never had anything to do with local government, at least – thinking they’re a good idea.

But who cares about that when there’s the opportunity to bring clientelism formally into British politics. Gather enough votes for your executive mayor, and you too could be rewarded with a nice cushy sinecure at the Council. Welcome to localism, birthplace of the municipal Berlusconi.

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Would I be breaking some sort of coalition rule by calling Eric Pickles an idiot?

I’m just wondering, because I’m sure that being the Cabinet minister responsible for a Localism Bill, yet only speaking about things in bizarrely anti-localist terms are the actions of either a satirical genius or an idiot. And as I don’t believe his performance is directed by Armando Ianucci, that doesn’t really leave many other options.

I could just about take his habit of proclaiming that he was setting local councils free – even though the rhetoric rarely matched the reality – while also laying out what they should and shouldn’t do, as being merely Whitehall doing what it always does in a vacuum: filling it with guidelines. I could even explain away his pronouncements on how often Councils should collect household waste as merely him expressing his opinion in the way many ex-Councillors like to berate those of us currently in the role for changes to what they thought was a perfectly organised system when they were sitting in the council chamber.

There’s no way to explain away the latest bit of DCLG madness though. We all knew that the 12 largest cities were going to have Whitehall attempt to foist mayors on them (yet suggest direct election of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the same people and watch them run screaming) in the name of local accountability without any hint that they’d even registered the potential irony in that policy. That was somewhat justifiable, though, on the grounds that there was a precedent in London and such Mayors would be subject to confirmatory referendums.

So, when will such confirmatory referendums take place? Why, after said mayors have been elected and taken office, of course! Because there’s nothing more localist than making the decisions for a city from afar and then asking them to tell you just how right you are a little further down the line, is there? And in this new age of austerity for Councils (it must be happening, I had an invite to a £400 one-day conference to discuss it), just who pays for the organisational changes that will have to happen to accommodate these new mayors? And who foots the bill if the public are so ungrateful as to decide they don’t actually want them?

I was prepared for the Localism Bill to not live up to the hype of how it would completely liberate councils, even before Nick Boles started playing the mood music for the abolition of districts and boroughs, but wasn’t expecting it to be this ridiculously centralist and dictating. Though I do live in hope that someday someone will tell Eric Pickles that he’s going to be replaced by a directly-elected Secretary of State, and if he objects to that then he can have his say in the entirely balanced and not at all rigged consultation that his successor will arrange.

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No doubt solely because of my visit there last week, the people of Bedford have elected Dave Hodgson as their Mayor. Congratulations to Dave and his team, and thanks to anyone who went to Bedford to help out, especially if you went as a result of my plea last week.

As with all by-elections, I’m sure this will be obsessed over by the media in the coming days, filling pages with speculation about what 2nd place means in terms of Cameron’s failure to connect with the voters, and just how bad is it for Labour to come 5th when the town of Bedford is represented by a Labour MP? After all, more people voted in Bedford than voted in the Norwich North by-election, and Dave will actually have much more power to influence the lives of the people of the Borough of Bedford than Chloe Smith has over the people of Norwich North.

In the real world, of course, it doesn’t even get a mention on the BBC News front page – and isn’t even one of the main stories on the Politics section of the BBC News site. Of course, it’s much more important that the Tories may or may not want to send a TV presenter to the House of Lords, in what I can only think must be a stunt to prove how ridiculous the idea of an appointed Upper House is. If we’re lucky, Dave’s election might just be the lead story on Look East tonight, unless someone in Norwich has stubbed their toe.

Finally, for those who like political trivia, consider this: both elected Liberal Democrat mayors are in the East of England, which also means that now all the elected mayors in the East of England are Liberal Democrats. It still doesn’t mean I want one in Colchester, though!

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If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen that I was in Bedford today helping out Dave Hodgson’s campaign for Mayor. Unlike my last by-election day out in Norwich, it was a sunny day so it was a pleasure to be out delivering on the streets of the town.

(And yes, I don’t agree with the current Mayoral system, but I also can’t argue with the reality that Bedford has one, and it’s better to have a Liberal Democrat in the post)

So, if you’ve got some spare time in the next week, then why not pop along to Bedford and help out the Dave for Mayor campaign? Every little helps, especially if you can get there on polling day next Thursday where they’ll need lots of help to get out the vote from across the borough. I can’t promise that you’ll get good weather too, but they do make a nice cup of tea at campaign HQ.

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As I’ve said before, I think the idea of centralising power in councils into one person isn’t a very good one, regardless of whether that person has the title of Mayor, Leader or Lord Grand High Poohbah.

But it seems they don’t go far enough for the Tories:

Twelve cities across the country would hold referendums to get rid of their council chief executives and hand over the powers to an “executive mayor”, who would take over the role of hiring and firing staff, determining council operations, and directing spending, as well as offering political leadership.

Yes, not content with all the political power being constrained in one individual, they want to put all the administrative power in there as well. (As a point of comparison, imagine what the Tory reaction would be if Gordon Brown announced that he was going to sack Gus O’Donnell and give the powers of the Cabinet Secretary to either himself or Peter Mandelson).

But notice the key power these new ‘executive Mayors’ would have – the hiring and firing of staff. Yes, the political machine is about to make its long-awaited return to British politics, with individual politicians, now free of all the checks and balances of the old Council system, able to dish out jobs and to their supporters and backers. Say goodbye to old local democracy and welcome instead Democracy 2.0 (which bears a striking resemblance to Clientelism 1.0, but pay no attention to the endemic corruption behind the curtain). A Tammany Hall on every High Street, ready to dish out the Mayor’s largesse (in return for your loyalty and your vote, of course) with none of those concerns about accountability, fairness or representation.

Maybe Caroline Spelman, unlike Chris Grayling, actually has watched The Wire, though it would seem she missed the point and thinks that Clay Davis was the unsung hero of the series.

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Just to give a quick plug to the Lib Dem candidate in the Bedford Mayoral by-election, Dave Hodgson. I believe that this is only the second Mayoral by-election in Britain after North Tyneside in 2003 so it’s about time that the Heath Robinson creation that is the fabled Lib Dem by-election machine got to work on one.

So good luck to Dave, and I might even see you on the streets of Bedford at some time in the next month if I can make it over there.

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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?

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