Making the case
In 2012, nine out of ten English cities rejected the chance to have a directly elected Mayor. It was a blow to those of us who believe in strong civic empowerment and a chance for citizens to have a direct say in the future of their cities.
During 2013, the Welsh Conservatives reiterated their support for directly elected Mayors in Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Wrexham. Unsurprisingly, in a mood which distrusts politicians and in the aftermath of the rejection of Mayors in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, there was little enthusiasm.
At the time I felt I had to speak up as a supporter of the principle of directly elected Mayors, even though I realised that the time was not right to push for a referendum on the matter.
The problem is that the time never will be right unless a case is made for a directly elected Mayor. So let us start with making the case for an elected Mayor for Newport. This blogpost will be unashamedly pro-Newport in its outlook, but many of the discussion points may be relevant in other cities too.
Cities are the home to more than half of the World’s population. In Britain, every city is an enthralling mix of cultures, yet has a shared urban identity. In recent history, the UK has been a centralised nation. Even with the dawn of devolution, the structure outside London has been based on nation states rather than conurbations. However, cities are our economic, cultural and social drivers. How they are empowered and how they are run matters.
Beyond the old parties
Some locations have a competitive electoral scene. Others are virtually one-party states. Think about the Labour strongholds in the South Wales Valleys or the Conservative dominance in the Home Counties. In both instances, it is hard to see the current electoral system delivering a change within a decade.
If it is all but certain that a specific party will be the largest it is logical that rather than seek to appeal to the whole population and to seek to prioritise their concerns, a wannabe council leader will seek to cultivate his own party’s core vote.
Newport has avoided the worst aspects of the one-party state problem. While Labour have often dominated the council, between 2008 and 2012 a coalition of Conservatives and Lib Dems did demonstrate that there was a competitive electoral scene. None the less, in 2012 Labour won 37 of 50 council seats to dominate the Civic Centre. It was an impressive victory for Labour. However, if that position remains, when the next leadership battle occurs the votes of just 19 Labour councillors will be needed to win. There would be little incentive for potential candidates to appeal to the electorate at large.
Directly elected Mayors (and Police and Crime Commissioners) have shaken the old party political dominance up. Where every resident has a vote, an independent or a new political movement can win and change the direction of policy for the city. It is no wonder that councillors are often the least enthusiastic to adopt a Mayoral system!
The system puts the power in the hands of every citizen.
A mandate from the whole electorate
Newport Council is currently led by a councillor representing the ward of Ringland. In 2012, he received 1046 votes, as it happened less than his two Labour colleagues in the ward. That was the only say the electorate had, as the next decision on who should lead the party lies with the majority group. Technically speaking, that means the two other Labour councillors in Ringland have the largest say of anyone in the city as they both vote in the ward and as members of the majority group get to select the leader.
There is nothing unique in the situation, but it is flawed. Residents for the vast majority of the city have no say on either the election as a councillor, nor the decision to appoint him or her as Council Leader.
In a city with a directly elected Mayor every voter has the opportunity to have their say. Certainly this is good democratic practice, but it can also be useful at a more pragmatic level. An elected Mayor has a mandate for major policies and big projects.
During a recent radio interview regarding the proposed regeneration of the Redcliffe area of Bristol the interviewee was asked why, when previous proposals had fallen by the wayside this new one had scope to progress. The respondent said there were two differences, the Localism Act and the presence of an elected mayor.
While councils theoretically can make big changes happen, Mayors have the mandate and profile to take a project by the scruff of the neck and deliver.
The photo below is taken from the Gallery at Wills Memorial Hall in Bristol as Mayor George Ferguson made his 2013 State of the City Address. It shows some of the 1,000 people who were in attendance. A small number to protest, the majority to listen.Theoretically, there is no reason why a Council Leader could not hold a similar event, but when was the last time that many people ordered (free) tickets and turned up to hear a local politician speak in your city?
Photo taken by Kathleen Christie
I hesitate about writing this point because for the most part I believe the reasons for backing a directly elected Mayor are positive. There is however a defensive advantage which is worthy of a quick mention.
There is currently an increasing pressure for Welsh local authorities to be merged and their number reduced. That is relatively easy for the Welsh Government to carry out as a top-down reorganisation at the moment. Local authorities have little scope to avoid mergers. However, a directly elected Mayor would hold an authority wide remit. It would be undemocratic for the Welsh Government to simply abolish the Mayoral role to create a merged authority. Neither, in practice, could a Mayor’s authority be expanded to cover a large area that had not previously had a vote for the Mayor.
There will be good mayors and bad mayors, but the system offers a huge opportunity for civic empowerment. The Mayor can achieve more than a Council Leader because of the mandate from the whole city. The people have more say in what the Mayor pursues because they have the power to kick him out.
The referendum may not be imminent in Newport, but let us start the conversation.