In the 1998 referendum on setting up a Greater London Authority with a Mayor of London and London Assembly I voted No. This was despite the encouragement of the Conservative leader William Hague for Londoners to vote Yes. I though that it would be another layer of bureaucracy. That despite the assurances of Tony Blair that it would prove a GLC Mark II – there would be inherent empire building.
Despite the eight years of Ken Livingstone, which in many ways confirmed my misgivings, I think that it is better to have accountability for services such as transport and policing rather than have them run by Quangos. Localism should mean that where possible powers should be devolved from City Hall to the London boroughs. But there is a need for a Mayor of London. So I think I was wrong to vote No.
The arguments for replacing a council leader with a directly elected mayor are rather different. The record of how they have worked out so far has been mixed. There has ben cases where the Mayor has got stuck in a kind of gridlock with the majority of councillors.
But if I lived in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Doncaster, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield or Wakefield then I would be voting Yes tomorrow. Circumstances vary a bit but having an election Mayor would give a chance to shake things up in places where municipal politics is broadly characterised by complacency, ossification and apathy.
As Dan Hannan blogs this morning:
Don't other cities deserve their Borises? Shouldn't Birmingham, Britain's second city, get the chance to elect a Joe Chamberlain for our age? Shouldn't Bradford and Bristol and Leeds and the rest? Elected mayors will revive civic patriotism, local particularisms and political diversity. No one can doubt that Boris – and, in his baleful fashion, Ken Livingstone – made Londoners more interested in the government of their city.
I have been canvassing in the towns and villages of the home counties, where local elections this year are sparse, and turnout looks like being low. But I hope the inhabitants of our great metropolises will vote 'Yes'. And I hope Londoners will give Boris the mandate he has earned.
Still this is not a party political issue. If anything all political parties have something to lose with directly elected Mayors as it would help independents. I can easily see Conservative councillors able to choose their Council leader not wishing to lose that power. If Conservatives choose to vote No then fair enough. The opinion polling has been pretty unsatisfactory, as the results have been contradictory and national rather than local. So the results are hard to predict.
In the Labour Party the desire of established interests to keep their grip on power has made the referendum campaigns divisive and unpleasant. For instance in Leeds there is reported to be "a climate of intimidation" among Labour councillors wishing to support the Yes campaign.