Directly elected Mayors in England are, without doubt, the most powerful English politicians around, with the exception of the Prime Minister. They have unparalleled executive powers, sufficient powers of patronage to ensure they are untroubled by dissenters in their own parties, and the comfort of knowing that it requires a two-thirds majority to overturn their budget or policy. And there is no limit to the number of terms they can serve.
So why does the Labour Party – which has never tampered with the manadatory reselection of local councillors – fail to build in any real mechanisms for ensuring their accountability?
Only six of the 18 directly elected Mayors in England are Labour, three of whom are still in the early part of their first terms. The other three, Sir Robin Wales in Newham, Jules Pipe in Hackney and my old friend Sir Steve Bullock in Lewisham, are each in the second half of their third terms. In the case of Robin Wales, that was preceeded by seven years as Leader.
And yet, next Tuesday, Labour’s executive is likely to agree a recommendation that, for the third time, they face only a trigger ballot (a vote on whether to have a proper contest, which they will have no difficulty winning) before standing for a fourth term. The only directly elected Labour mayor who has faced some form of mandatory reselection, was — surprise, surprise — Ken Livingstone. In 2010, he was opposed in that “reselection” contest by Oona King, though his Blairite critics still criticised the process as inadequate.
Why are they so certain to win their trigger ballots? Because they have no challenger.
Why do they have no challengers? Because as well as the power and the patronage, they can carry on long as they wish. It’s a vicious circle.
Of course, each Mayor has their own personal style and different levels of willingness to tolerate criticism. But the value of the patronage in these boroughs is far more significant than in Parliament where MPs are paid a minimum of £65,738. In Newham, London’s poorest borough, the £15,856 which Sir Robin Wales dispenses (on average), in addition to their basic allowance of £10,829, to 29 of Newham’s 60 Labour councillors (there is no opposition) is not chicken feed. For many, it is their only or main income. How likely is it that a Cabinet member who is full-time, dependent on their allowances of £41,871, will take on Sir Robin in Cabinet or Labour Group never mind in a contest to be a mayoral candidate?
Sir Robin Wales, as a former Chair of Scottish Labour Students, knows a thing or two about the use of an ice pick. But he has no need of such tools when he is in firm control of the wallets of all his leading members. Jules Pipe distributes similar amounts to 24 of his 49 Labour councillors, and Sir Steve Bullock to 21 of his 41.
I make no secret of being highly sceptical of the principle of directly elected mayors, but have also proposed measures to make those that we have got moe accountable. The least that Labour’s executive could do is to ensure that if Mayors are allowed to serve a fourth term, they should at least face a full selection procedure.