Until May of this year Alan Craig was a Christian Peoples Alliance councillor on Newham Council and Leader of the Opposition. He is sceptical about directly elected mayors.
In the general election Conservatives campaigned on David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society where power is devolved away from the centre, citizens are allowed to determine their own lives free from state interference and ‘third sector’ voluntary, community, faith and other local and non-profit groups are encouraged to flourish.
As part of the package, Cameron proposed to increase the number of US-style directly-elected executive mayors in order to make them both locally accountable and powerful. The Coalition Agreement confirmed this:
“We will create directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities, subject to confirmatory referendums and full scrutiny by elected councillors.”
The Big Society is admirable localism; it should be applauded as a vital attempt to renew civil society. But the experience at the grass roots of the London Borough of Newham, which has a population larger than Newcastle, is that directly-elected mayors can have the opposite effect to that intended from the centre at Westminster.
Elected mayors were introduced to Newham in 2002 by referendum and I voted in favour. I persuaded myself that a manager-mayor would give an effective lead to the borough and a modern progressive answer to the stultifying municipal politics of tribal Old Labour that had dominated the borough for decades.
Eight years on and old-style municipal politics with its multiplicity of time-wasting committees has indeed gone. But I’ve changed my mind and would now vote No; the old system has been replaced by a single all-powerful but media-savvy authoritarian figure that dominates and controls the ruling Labour Party, the town hall and the public life of the borough. Think Kim Jong-il with a big taxpayer-funded spin budget and you’re getting there.
This is partly down to the style of the present incumbent who exploits to the full the top- down authority of the role and also spends many tens of thousands of public pounds promoting his own personality cult. It’s partly down to the long-term one-party nature of Newham which has desiccated normal democracy, debate and dissension. But it’s also down to the constitutional arrangements which give extraordinary power to the mayor alone (his Cabinet has just an advisory function) without ensuring effective checks and balances.
Under the new system Scrutiny Commissions were created to scrutinize the executive and hold it to account. But the mayor through his cronies ensures all chairpersons are Labour patsies and placemen (and women) who, in my experience, literally never allow any criticism or censure of the administration.
Newham has 60 councillors in total and at the last count the mayor had handed out posts attracting ‘special responsibility allowances’ to 41 of them. Together they comprise the mayor’s all-important payroll vote with its special financially-induced loyalty to him. Such legal political corruption ensures there will be no party revolts on Newham Council.
The borough’s independent fourth estate has been deliberately emasculated. Every fortnight the town hall distributes its own large glossy magazine (‘The Newham Mag’) free to every home in the borough. It of course sings and spins the mayor’s song in every edition and there are rarely less than half a dozen photos of him in its shiny pages; the record is an unlucky – for readers – thirteen. The struggling local press depends heavily on the town hall for advertising revenue, and nods and winks (and worse) make it clear that local papers are
expected to toe the town hall line.
East London is notorious for its dependency culture. Far from working to replace this with a healthier alternative, the mayoral regime entrenches it. Newham’s voluntary sector is forced to live within its town hall-defined tram-lines. Claims of ‘partnership’ and ‘consultation’ are a joke. Diktats, threats to withdraw funding,
public rubbishing and freezing-out are all well-used arrows in the town hall quiver.
Far from flourishing, community groups and other private initiatives live with a nervous weather-eye on the all-powerful mayor, wondering if they are in favour or out, and what the consequences are for their service, activity or enterprise.
And it’s not only community groups. Trade unions may not be everyone’s cup of tea but the last union leader to publicly and seriously challenge the town hall was vindictively hung, drawn and quartered and shipped out of the borough. You doubt it? Trace the disgraceful treatment of Michael Gavan of UNISON.
So civic society cannot grow and flourish in Newham. The unrestrained and dominating power of the directly-elected mayor ensures there is one centralised focus of authority and initiative in the borough. Even if by some miracle of political IVF the Big Society idea is implanted in Newham, it will be stillborn.