Examining the case for directly elected mayors

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 26th April 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.

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