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Oppose directly elected Mayors – bad for democracy and bad for Labour

It isn’t often that we agree with John Spellar, but we’re happy to say that we did yesterday when he came out at Progress against a directly elected Mayor for Birmingham, and what he called the “arcane constitutional debate” about the whole issue. Directly elected Mayors have already proved bad for democracy and bad for Labour. Fortunately, the voters in most places that have voted on whether to have them has so far thrown the idea out — in 27 towns and cities, compared with only 13 that have them.

There have been some good Labour Mayors elected, not least Ken Livingstone in London and we hope to see him back next May, but it would be even better to see him as Leader of a restored Greater London Council. You need good politicians to do a great job for our cities, but you also need effective management, a good structure to hold both to account, and committed councillors elected on a clear political basis to make that structure work.

To invest in a single politician the power to make policy across a range of issues, to effectively control the budget unless there is a large majority against it, to appoint a host of other politicians to powerful posts on what may well be, for those individuals and those who elect them, very large salaries: that is an unacceptable concentration of power.

The powers of patronage wielded by elected Mayors, resulting in full-time councillors financial dependent on the Mayor’s goodwill, creates a climate of subservience in some and resentment in others. And a factionalism dependent on personal not community or public interest (unless of course the Mayor persuades Labour officials to purge dissenters from the council).

Nor does the “personal mandate” of elected mayors give any comfort. Mayoral elections are personality contests, more X factor than politics, and beneficial to anyone who can present themselves as the anti-politician candidate (as both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson were able to do when they first won). For that reason, they are contests that often result in the election of an independent. And when it comes to policies, there’s no accountability.

Some argue you need “strong political leadership and clear vision” which, they suggest, can only come from directly elected mayors, who are also able to “use their status to actually personify the city’s brand”. Has that come from Stuart Drummond, Independent Mayor of Hartlepool, who was first put up for election by the football club, as a publicity stunt, and has won two further victories since? Or Peter Davies who won Doncaster for the English Democrats?

And they are just two of the Labour towns and cities where Labour has lost the election for the mayoralty. Don’t let it happen to these great cities which are to vote on the principle soon: Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield. In many cases, the campaigns for directly elected mayors are driven by the ambitious men who want the job, like Siôn Simon and Albert Bore in Birmingham. In most of these cities, Labour has sensibly decided to oppose the change, in spite of the national campaign by Lord Adonis. In Bristol, it’s neutral. In Coventry, the issue is hotly contested.

There is more support for elected Mayors for wider conurbations. John Spellar, for example, is careful to distinguish Birmingham from London, where, he argues, the Mayor does not deliver most council services. It is true that too few functions were devolved to the GLA from Whitehall (and the boroughs were too resistant to pass over their jointly-exercised London-wide functions) but do transport and policing, and the Mayor’s resposibilities for planning and development, housing, culture, economic development and regeneration not justify a London council? And would they not do so in other conurbations too?

Directly-elected Mayors were an elitist and authoritarian idea Tony Blair borrowed from Michael Heseltine and foisted on an unwilling Labour Party. Although, a handful of local Labour leaders are attracted by the enhanced powers, there remains very little support for it amongst Labour councillors or activists. We should oppose them now, and reintroduce proper accountability when we return to government.


  1. LabourCllr says:

    Don’t disagree with thrust of the article – but English Democrat is in Doncaster, not Darlington.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Thanks LabourCllr. I’ll correct it.

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