Having a Mayor

A fair chunk of the local political blog scene have been telling us why they don’t like a directly elected mayor so I thought I should use my small voice to say why (on balance) I’m happy with the system.

Perhaps we should all start by acknowledging that there is no perfect system of democracy, and that what different models do is to allow us to choose between the strengths and weeknesses of possible outcomes.

But I’m not sure that the people who are supporting the campaign to end the mayoral system here in Lewisham acknowledge any such thing. They characterise the Mayor system as being a danger to democracy and the start of some sort of autocratic rule.

As far as I can tell they argue that Lewisham would be much better served if you, the people, didn’t get to decide which person led our local state. They say that it would be preferable if that decision were in the hands of councillors.

And they describe that outcome as being more “democratic”, which is a very party political oriented view of the world.

For myself I like the fact that the Mayoral system allows us all a say in who the political leader of our borough will be but I acknowledge that it reduces the direct power of the councillors who also sit on the Council.

I believe that clarity about who is accountable for decisions made – and the increased visibility of the Mayor – has been a positive for local democratic debate, and wonder whether that’s as easily achieved in a system where we have less of a stake in who sits in the leader’s chair at council meetings?

There’s a comment here which asks me why there’s been so little appetite for the model elsewhere in the UK. I, of course, don’t have a definative answer, but perhaps low levels of public interest in local democratic engagement, and a conservative mindset amongst some existing councillors has played a part. And the mayoral model is a winner takes all approach, which has also probably been a factor.  But it’s not an idea without support as the campaign for a Mayor for Liverpool may indicate.

If there is to be a referendum here my vote will be to retain the mayoral system, but should my view not prevail I don’t think this will be the end of the world; just a shame that I won’t be able to influence who leads the council.

About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
This entry was posted in Civic Society, Lewisham, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Having a Mayor

  1. And, of course, speaking from the other side of the boundary, you don’t have to have a mayor to have autocratic rule – witness the way things are run in the fiefdom of Greenwich. Although that is aided by having an opposition which is forever staring up its backside.

    I’m not sure they’re a good idea for London boroughs, but perhaps having a mayor sparks a bit more debate in the first place – at least someone’s sticking their head above the parapet for opponents to aim their darts at.

  2. Max says:

    Hi Inspector, I have to disagree, there’s nothing that’s more conducive to autocracy than a man that cannot be challenged by anybody and that needs only 1/3 of the Council to approve the budget.
    On top of it it’s evident that only one person cannot be responsible for everything that a borough does, he doesn’t have the time to read the tenth part of the papers that he should read before taking decisions and will rely on officers’ advice that he will defend from criticims because any criticism moved to the Council’s activity is received as an attack to the Mayor.
    I saw a few Mayor and Cabinet meetings and they look like tightly scripted ceremonies where each person around the table congratulates each other for the excellent work even when the matter discussed is an abysmal failure.
    I actually wonder if anybody would notice any difference from what we have now if we dispensed with every elected representative and had just a chief executive working to hit government targets.

  3. andrewkbrown says:

    Ah yes Max, that’s the way to improve democratic accountability, just get rid of elected positions all together.

    I believe that you’ll find the difference that politicians make is larger than you imagine – take this example I prepared earlier.

  4. kate says:

    hi im voting for max.

  5. Call Me A Cynic But says:

    Perhaps Max and co. should move to Greenwich en masse if they’re so enamoured with local services and the commitment to local democracy on the other side of Blackheath?

  6. Max says:

    I don’t know if the man that could be called a cynic lives this or that side of the border but I fear that if all those that here are skeptical about the mayoral system would pay their Council tax to Greenwich then Lewisham finances could be in some trouble.

    Greenwich is far from perfect and you don’t need to live there to enjoy reading greenwichwatch.

    Andrew, the ending part of my comment was of course provocative but I had a read at what you pointed at and surfed back the links to the source article and it gives two different reasons why there are more affordable housing built in Labour controlled boroughs than in Tory ones:

    1) ‘Members in Labour boroughs may be more likely to be pressing for social housing than Tory boroughs.’

    2) ‘Housing tends to be lower density in outer London boroughs because they haven’t got the transport links,’

    So, if reason 1 was prevailing then you would be right, if reason 2 was instead correct then my provocation would even start sounding plausible.

  7. Lone Ranger says:

    I think it was last year the Audit Commission produced a report stating the number of new homes being built was at its lowest level since 1945. The Audit Commission showed over the past 3/4 years housing has become less affordable.

  8. andrewkbrown says:

    Max, of course not all Conservative run London boroughs are suburban; Wandsworth, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea are all in inner London, as is Lambeth (where the Tories lost control recently).

    Lone Ranger, I’m not sure how that relates to the point we’re discussing.

    I just find it ironic that there are a number of people around the “Bring Back Democracy” campaign who’s commitment to democracy itself is, well shall we say, flexible. I’ve heard at least one of their most prominent supporters wax lyrical about the joys of East German “democracy” and now we have Max (playfully?) suggesting a technocratic local state might be okay.

    And I’m sure there’ll be a few admirers of Hugo Chavez (who I read is now looking to rule by presidential decree) amongst the campaign’s hard left supporters.

  9. Max says:

    I didn’t say that it might be okay, I only wondered if one would notice much of a difference.

  10. andrewkbrown says:

    Okay, sorry if I misrepresented you.

    My experience is that you would notice the difference. Appointed officials have a different perspective about what the state is about than politicians. They have different skills and are responsive to different stimuli, for good or ill.

    Of course the permanent state has a large part to play in defining and facilitating how we conduct public debate and determine priorities, but without politicians accountability is diminished, and power gets further away from us, the public.

    And so if the test is about accountability (as much as it is about competence) I think that being able to elect our representatives isn’t half a bad thing.

  11. Max says:

    Ok, but as you say there’s some good in having people nearer to the electorate being able to influence decisions and we do elect a Council, only that it has no power at all because it is all given to the Mayor and for me the mayoral system is highly imperfect. I haven’t heard of any proposal for the improvement of the mayoral system. Why?

  12. andrewkbrown says:

    And Lewisham’s councillors still have a big influence of the development and shape of council services, as I know from my years working in that system.

    The thing about the Mayoralty that I like (and you’ll notice this has been a consistent theme of my commentary on this issue) is that we all directly elect him or her, rather than choosing to pass that decision onto councillors.

    Could we tinker with the checks and balances for the Mayor? I imagine we could and that may, or may not, improve the quality of decision making. Will the personality and philosophy of the Mayor change the way they carry out the role? Of course. But none of this moves us away from the central point of my argument; which is that I believe that it is better for democratic accountability if we get to decide who leads our council than if councillors do.

  13. Lone Ranger says:

    Andrew my words were prompted by the following, “I believe that you’ll find the difference that politicians make is larger than you imagine…”

    At the Blackheath hustings last year I was very tempted to ask why Greenwich had no proposals for an elected Mayor.

    It appears to be accepted under a directly elected mayor ward councillors have had their influence over decisions removed or reduced. In return one person has been given the ability to ignore the wishes of the electorate, full council and his own party members.

    I understand the Mayor has delegated more powers and decision making to council officers. Isn’t that moving away democracy towards the chief executive running the council?

    The promoters of the elected Mayor system (NLGN) appear to be academics, politicians, council officers and companies that have multi million pound contracts with councils.

    Therefore is it any surprise NLGN see marketing the Mayor and turning the council into a brand an important factor in the operation of councils.

    The system seems to be geared to making life easier for the admistrators, senior local politicians and those companies making money servicing councils.

    One of the main arguements for a directly elected mayor is it will increase the number of people who vote. I think when I checked the percentage of voters in the 2006 local elections was about the same in Greenwich and Lewisham.

    I am surprised astute intelligent people like yourself are unable to see how the system is open to abuse.

    The main claim for the new system is strong leadership, clear decision making and improved delivery of outcomes. When in fact it’s no better than the previous system.

    Some might go as far as to say it sucks?

    I’m sure if a man dressed in a monkey suit can be elected as a mayor, I’m sure a man in swimming trunks can equally be as successful.

  14. Mind you, the man in the monkey suit was re-elected with an increased majority…

  15. andrewkbrown says:

    Still not sure how the national fact of fewer houses being built says anything about the debate about politicians effectiveness; other than perhaps proving my point. If there are fewer resources for building new houses but certain areas are building a greater proportion of them and they’re represented by and large by politicians with a commitment to building houses…

    As for ignoring the electorate, well don’t politicians stand on a manifesto, we vote for the one we like and the politicians try to achieve their promises. Sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re not, and then we get the chance to say whether their achievements are enough for us to want them to do the job again.

    There were delegated decisions throughout my time on the council. I don’t remember them being extended significantly when the Mayoralty started, but I am happy to be corrected if I’ve got that wrong. But the point to make is that delegation is not something unique to authorities with Mayors.

    I entirely disagree that the system is about making it easier for “the admistrators, senior local politicians and those companies making money servicing councils.” If that happens it is a by-product rather than the intention. The intention is to make our communities better run, and better places to live.

    As for abuse, any system has the potential to be abused. Go ask the people of Lincolnshire whether having a leader and cabinet system was a bulwark against abuse. And in case you think I’m being partisan ask people from Doncaster whether the committee system was less open to abuse than their Mayoralty.

    The thing I’d note in bringing these cases to your attention is that they are the exception and not the rule. Politicians are very aware of the power they have, and that they are surrounded by mechanisms to test whether they follow the law. And the vast majority, like the rest of society, are honest.

    As for whether things have improved, you have a tendency, if I can say so, of looking for the negative and not acknowledging the positive.

    As you will know Lewisham’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment has consistently been positive over the period we’ve had a Mayor.

  16. andrewkbrown says:

    Something I picked up on the difference between turnouts in mayoral and leader and cabinet models:

    Evidence from the recent local elections suggests that this increased visibility has had an impact on democratic participation. In May 2005’s local election, voter participation rose by at least eight per cent in three out of four of the mayoral areas. This compares to an average increase of three per cent between 2002 and 2006 in areas with a leader and cabinet. The early signs are that the visibility and transparency of the mayors has encouraged people to make their judgement through the ballot box.

    The source is NLGN, but I’m sure it can be checked if you don’t trust it and have enough time on your hands.

  17. Lone Ranger says:

    This is the same NLGN who declared the system was successful in Lewisham because people knew the name of the Mayor. By that measure do you regard the system in Venezeula successful because you know the name of its president?

    Rather than use irrelevant propaganda from NLGN how about looking comparing like for like figures relevant to Lewisham.

    At the 2006 local elections on average each ward in Lewisham had a turnout below 30%, in Greenwich the figure was over 36%.

    Between the 2002 and 2006 local elections the turnout in Greenwich increased by over 6% while in Lewisham the increase was below 4%.

  18. Call Me A Cynic But says:

    “At the 2006 local elections on average each ward in Lewisham had a turnout below 30%, in Greenwich the figure was over 36%.”

    So, Greenwich with its virtually unknown leader, majoritarian Labourist political culture and declining services (see Ofsted and Audit Commission) is preferable to a council where the elected leader is accountable to all the electorate and where the opposition parties have made headway and chipped away at Labour hegemony?

    Funny how no one mentions Southwark as an exemplar of local democracy in action…

  19. andrewkbrown says:

    Oh, now you mention it… perhaps the Mayoral system isn’t so good after all… 😉

  20. Ross says:

    apologies for jumping in on an old topic but i stumbled across it whilst searching for something else

    when i read the first few lines of the bringbackdemocracy .org site i thought i was onto something interesting and useful, but soon after seeing that the campaign was backed by all political parties (who didn’t have the mayor) raised initial suspicions then further reading of the blurb saw that they wanted a return to the system where the leader & executive were selected by councilors

    however most contributors here, it didn’t make me resort to a binary analysis of choosing between keeping the mayor as it is or going with the bbd.org campaign. I see no reason why both councilors and the executive can’t be chosen by local democracy, furthermore i’d push for elected officials to be subject to a recall vote by the electorate at any stage if an appropriate level of people demanded it, combined with a much more transparent system to provide information to the community as to what their elected representatives are actually doing. Yes it may bring in more hassles with administering such a system but your either serious about devolving power & decision making closer to those who are impacted by the results of it, or your not. So far both sides of the arguments i’ve seen here seem to avoid addressing that issue.

  21. Ross says:

    *there should be the word ‘unlike’ in between however and most in the post above*

  22. Pingback: Mayor ‘Mare « Someday I Will Treat You Good

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