Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Elected Mayors – An Afterword

It’s been an interesting week for local democracy. Last Wednesday, Doncaster’s elected mayor, Martin Winter, was seen doing his best to avoid giving an interview to BBC2’s Newsnight. Then on Friday the elected mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Mark Meredith, was arrested on suspicion of corruption. Stoke is the city that has already voted to scrap its directly elected mayor and go back to the older, more broadly based form of local governance.

We must, of course, presume Mr Meredith to be innocent, but the thing about justice, famously, is that it must not only be done but be seen to be done. How much easier that would be if all municipal decisions came before open meetings, to be voted upon by all councillors, and not as now, taken secretly by the chosen few or just by Il Duce himself.

The gist of Newsnight’s report was that Doncaster folk are fed up with their mayor. The Council has passed two motions of no confidence in him but he refuses to go. His successes were said to be a number of big urban property deals, his failures the core services, especially to the outlying villages, that are basically the reason residents pay their council tax.

It all provides interesting background to the Tories’ proposals for elected mayors contained in their Green Paper, Control Shift. The benefit of an elected mayor, they say, is the ability to “enhance the prestige” of a city. Code for “smooth the path of property developers”? Is this an aim to be pursued at the expense of getting the basics right? The social workers well-managed, the potholes filled, the schools teaching soundly? It’s these issues that ward councillors deal with in their surgeries and they expect to see action taken. No chance then, if the mayor won’t go when it’s clear he’s outstayed his welcome.

The Tories, instead of respecting local democracy, want to force major cities, including Bristol, to hold a referendum on moving to a mayoral system, with a presumption in favour of change. Who pays for this expense? Do the Tories not know that if enough local folk – just 5% – want an elected mayor they can force a referendum already?

Of course they do. But where Labour leads, the Tories now follow. And that is towards a ‘managed democracy’ where we are asked loaded questions, about a filtered list of issues, within biased voting arrangements. The Swiss wouldn’t take it. They have direct democracy by referendum on issues raised by the public taking the initiative. And so should we.

Labour’s desperation shows in a document out for consultation until the end of this week. It aims to make it easier to get local governance structures changed, and harder to get them changed back again when, sure enough, they don’t work and folk are fed up with that fact. Wessex Regionalists are sick of Whitehall-knows-best, sick of being told what decisions are safe for us to make and which aren’t. And sick of the collusion between the London parties to keep the whole interfering nonsense chugging along.

By the way, happy birthday to the Earl. The Wessex Wyvern is flying over the Town Council offices in Weston-super-Mare to mark his festivities. Let this be the year he starts to earn his title and stops pretending there’s no such place as Wessex.

1 comment:

Charlie Marks said...

The direct democracy of the Swiss is quite inspirational. I don't know if they have elected mayors, though...

There were siren voices within Labour warning that corruption would follow the centralisation of power, but they weren't heeded. What we have now increasingly more like local administration rather than local government - I'm sure that New Labour's changes to local councils, such as cabinet government and elected mayors, were specifically designed to prevent alternative policies being implemented.

There's no hope of the Tories remedying the situation - it's a problem they helped create in the 70s and 80s when they hobbled the independence of local government. What incentive have they to change things, they are dominant in local government (in England, at least) and would stand to lose from fairer voting systems, citizen-initiated referenda, etc.