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Of directly elected mayors, democracy and the large gap in between

The people have spoken but will the commentariat listen? Every large city that was asked whether it wanted a directly mayor this week rejected the idea bar one. Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield, all said no by majorities between 6% and 30%. The people of Liverpool, quite disgracefully, weren’t consulted. The people of Bristol said yes, very narrowly (53% to 47%), with only about one in eight of Bristol’s voters actually backing it in a low turnout. But that’s not all.

In London, where people were never asked what form of London government they wanted, they elected a mayor, by a margin of 3%. He had the first preference backing of less than 17% of the electorate in a 38% turnout. And yet the Tory assembly members (9 out of 25) who were voted for by only 32% of those who voted (12% of the electorate) are enough to guarantee that the remaining 16 assembly members can’t block the mayor’s budget or key policies or a myraid of highly paid appointments. How’s that for checks and balances.

Labour cannot allow this undemocratic charade to continue, neither in London nor in any other town or city in Britain. As a minimum, Labour should commit to reforms of current arrangement, some for legislative change, some for Labour’s own procedures:

  • If directly elected mayors are to be introduced, it should only be after a local referendum, and subject to the support of a minimum of, say, a third of the electorate. Not after a decision of councillors alone (like Liverpool) or the referenda in Salford and Bristol in which public apathy clearly won the day.
  • Budgets and all policies draw up by elected mayors should require approval by a simple majority of councillors/London assembly members not the 2/3 majority now required.
  • All appointments of councillors to the cabinet, other council positions and outside bodies must be subject to ratification by the council or a council committee, with a confirmation hearing where appropriate, together with any senior staff appointments made by the Mayor personally.
  • Directly elected mayors should be subject to a maximum of two terms.
  • Labour Groups should not be bound by decisions of a Labour Mayor, but should be free to determine their own collective policy and actions.
  • Mayoral candidates should be subject to a full selection procedure for each term, through an electoral college giving an equal share to individual party members and to members of all nationally affiliated organisations who reside in the relevant area.


  1. Peter Kenyon says:

    Dear Jon

    Why not just get rid of directly elected mayors altogether. They were a Blairite vanity project and should be treated as such.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      I am certainly in favour of returning to electing councils which can elect and remove their own leaders, Peter. We do however have some directly mayors around the country which people locally have voted for, and that’s why I suggest reforms which should be implemented “as a minimum”.

      Although I’d never advocate elected mayors, I think there is no reason not to allow some variation in local structures, if that really is the wish of local people, subject to ensuring that there are checks & balances in the structure, to ensure proper accountability.

  2. Syzygy says:

    I completely agree. It is an undemocratic charade and we should get rid of directly elected mayors.

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