It’s time for the subject of elected mayors in this country to be properly examined. For too long now proposals have been met with enthusiastic opinion, but little else. The potential change to the political landscape that elected mayors could bring would be hugely beneficial to our democratic system – and frankly, I think it’s much needed.
The current non-elected UK mayor is a step behind their elected international counterpart. In the USA, in the Commonwealth and in many European countries, a mayor is a local figurehead who has the mandate and power to influence change on both a local and national level. Our mayors are a peculiar mixture of ceremony and civic figurehead.
It was the Blair government that first introduced the legislation for elected mayors through the Local Government Act 2000. A petition with the signatures of at least 5% of those eligible to vote, or a simple resolution of the Council would result in a referendum for the introduction of an elected mayor.
Since 2000, there have been just 37 referendums, and only 13 results were in favour of an elected mayor. So why the lack of take up? I think the biggest political hurdle is on a local level. The entrenched views of local parties, councillors, and council officials are often a barrier to even minor change; so change on this scale is always likely to meet opposition.
I also think there has been a lack of motivation from Central Government. However, I do think this could change with the current administration; both we and our coalition partners are enthusiastic about increased localism.
Finally, I do not think this issue has been debated properly with the general public. Again, there are signs that this is changing; certainly in my constituency the issue has received a lot more local press coverage, and the position of Mayor of London has invigorated the concept across the whole country. But generally speaking, the idea just isn’t being properly debated.
So what would elected mayors bring to our local authorities? The current system of local government is a product of the 1970s, and whilst much has changed in national and international politics since then, local government has remained pretty much the same. An elected mayor would bring accountability, a mandate, and an effective figurehead to a city or region – all of which have been somewhat lacking within the sphere of local politics.
I reject the idea that elected mayors would introduce “personality politics” to a local level. A visible leader should not be confused for a celebrity. If people choose to elect a single person to represent their region then all the better; all the more relatable, and all the more accountable. I think Boris Johnson is a great example of this. There were fears such a big personality would subsume or diminish the role. This hasn't happened.
An accountable figurehead with real power would have a voice on a national level – and as a result, a local authority would have that voice too. This can only be a good thing. A greater level of movement between local and national politics would mean that the executive experience of a local authority could be brought to the national level, and the legislative experience at the national level could be brought back to the local authority.
This coalition government has a commitment to decentralisation and transparency, and I believe there is a real clamour on a local level for vitality and change; objectives which can be met by the introduction of elected mayors.
The movement for this change has been slow, but there is no doubt that it is quickening, and both the legislation and the opportunity for change are already all in place. The time for elected mayors is dawning – and I fully support it.