Examining the case for directly elected mayors

26 Apr 2012

Does Bristol, Birmingham or Bradford want a Boris? We find out next Thursday when these and seven other English cities give voters a choice as to whether to adopt the directly elected mayor model.


Yet just days before the poll, there is little understanding of what benefit directly elected mayors might bring, what their role and powers are likely to be and what, if anything, they will do to reinvigorate local democracy.


Turnout for Mayoral referendums has ranged from lows of 10% in Sunderland and Ealing to a high of 64% in Berwick upon Tweed. Most mayoral referendums have returned a ‘no’ vote (27 out of 42) but areas that have chosen a directly elected mayor seem to like them; most Mayors elected in 2002 are now serving their third term. A ComRes poll in April this year asked whether ‘London is a better city for having a Mayor’ - 69% agreed and only 12% disagreed.


The latest British Social Attitudes survey reveals mixed response to elected mayors. Whilst 58 per cent agree that an elected mayor can speak up for an area, only 37 per cent think an elected mayor makes it ‘easier to get things done’. More people agree than disagree with the claim that it gives too much power to a single person, but almost the same percentage of people simply don’t know.


Opponents of the role see it as too great a concentration of power in a single individual and fear it leads to unaccountable, authoritarian leadership, opening the door to corruption. Yet the formal powers of existing elected mayors do not differ greatly from those of council leaders. The arguably more important powers are ‘soft powers’ deriving from direct election and the position itself which expands influence.

However, this new set of city mayors are to have greater powers in relation to economic growth, infrastructure, planning and employment. The government intends to take a ‘bespoke approach’ to devolving power through ‘tailored city deals’. This means people will be voting in referendums with no idea what powers their future mayor may have. Whether this uncertainty will impact on the result of the referendums remains to be seen, what we do know is that a lack of knowledge will always sway voters towards the status quo.


In the opposite corner, advocates of elected mayors argue that they deliver strong and stable leadership; that they can act as champions of an area, driving economic development and growth. As representatives chosen by citizens rather than their party colleagues, directly elected mayors are arguably more externally focused. Many mayors see themselves as leader of a place rather than leader of a council.


The position also appears to attract leaders from outside the usual political channels. To date, six elected Mayors have been independents including a former detective inspector, a former newsagent and a former football mascot. Yet whilst the position has attracted new political voices, it has not attracted candidates from across society. The Centre for Women and Democracy reports that in next week’s three Mayoral elections only 15% of candidates are women. This is the lowest percentage in the history of the post of directly elected Mayor. In Liverpool’s election there are no female or minority ethnic candidates.


Devolving powers to city regions could be seen as an important move to reinvigorate local democracy and mitigate against the centralization which shapes governance in England. But it is not clear on the evidence to date that it is always the right move. The Warwick Commission on elected mayors and city leadership has concluded that whilst elected mayors are right for some places, they might not be necessary for cities which are already ‘vigorously and strategically led’.


Next week may see more citizens gaining the opportunity to elect a leader for their area. But the jury is out on whether directly elected mayors offer a better version of democracy or just a different one.


What are your views on Elected Mayors? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.




5 Responses to Examining the case for directly elected mayors

Tracy Connell 27 Apr 2012

Well, we don't want one in Newcastle. Both the Lib Dems and Labour councillors are campaigning against it. Here's the website explaining why we are against an elected Mayor 

Do we really want that much power in the hands of a single person? Do we really want another bod earning over £100,000? I'd rather have the potholes filled in thank you!

Keith Underhill 26 Apr 2012

The elected Mayor does not have more powers than a council leader, but an elected mayor cannot be got rid of. 
If the council leader is incompetent they can be got rid of by the councillors. The council leader need the support of 50% of the council members to get proposals passed. The Elected Mayor needs only one third of the council.
It cannot come as a surprise that there are less women standing for election for a single member post. In the end my most fundamental objection is that I support proportional representation in local councils. You can't get PR if you only have one candidate elected!

Francis McGonigal 27 Apr 2012

"You can't get PR if you only have one candidate elected!"
That's true, but you could have both councillors elected by PR and a directly elected mayor with some agreed separation of powers.

PJ99 1 Jun 2012

There's no need to do that, just have a council elected by PR!

I see Mayors, like Presidents, as the ultimate in "First Past the Post", "Two Party Politics", and "Winner Takes All" type of politics.  In short, everything reformers want to get rid of!

As said above, it's too much power, in one imperfect human being.

And how do you get rid of them, if they prove to be incompetent or corrupt?  You'd need an impeachment or recall system!  It's so much easier for a council, to simply replace its leader.

peachy19 27 Apr 2012

This is probably the historian in me speaking but I think the case for having local city mayors is a good one- in the past, many cities and large towns in England had a mayor that wielded minor administrative power as well as ceremonial. People like the idea of having someone who is local to them representing them, and there is a case to argue that having a mayor increases sense of community; the Londoners, who have always had their own mayor, very much have a strong sense of self and independence that other places in England lack. I'm not saying the mayor is a cure-all, far from it, but I do think that it's a step in the right direction.