Who cares about mayors?

Whatever government ministers and local councillors say, a mayoral movement is not sweeping the UK.

Ciaran Guilfoyle

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Topics Politics

‘This is a historic moment for Lewisham…. Now we have a clear mandate from local people, Lewisham Council will move ahead and prepare for the new system.’ (1)

So said Barry Quirk, chief executive of Lewisham Council in London, after a majority of voters said ‘yes’ in a referendum in October on whether Lewisham should have its own elected mayor. Voters in Doncaster, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, North Tyneside and Watford have also voted ‘yes’ to having a mayor, with future referendums planned for Bedford, Durham, Harrow, Newham, Plymouth, Redditch, Shepway and West Devon.

So is this really an ‘historic moment’, a sign of the renaissance of civic life?

Not really. In Lewisham, talk of history and having a ‘clear mandate’ implies there was some kind of mass movement demanding the installation of a mayor in Catford Town Hall. But out of a 180,000-strong electorate in Lewisham, only 33,000 participated in the mayoral referendum – a turnout of just 18 percent. Of the votes cast, 16,822 votes said ‘yes’, while 15,914 said ‘no’ – giving the pro-mayor brigade a victory of just 908. On top of that, 1351 votes were ‘agreed invalid’ (for undisclosed reasons) and 275 ballots were spoiled (2). In light of this, the talk of having a ‘clear mandate’ from the ‘local people’ looks weak. In total, just over nine percent of Lewisham’s electorate voted to have a mayor.

Such a lame result isn’t really surprising considering that Lewisham failed to get the electorate fired up. The council’s two adverts for the referendum showed a comfortable sofa and a bloke in a bath, encouraging voters to stay at home and post their ballots instead of walking all the way to a polling booth. Barry Quirk advised voters to ‘simply sit back on the sofa, cast your vote, get a witness to sign the declaration paper and post it all back to the council in the pre-paid envelope. It’s as easy as that – no more trudging to the polling booth in the rain’ (3).

Civic activists are no doubt familiar with such a poor turnout. After all, many local council elections barely get a turnout of 18 percent. But the problem with mayoral referendums is not just their lack of popularity. The problem is their narrowing of political debate and their undemocratic view of voters.

Even at the best of times, referendums are never the ‘let-the-people-decide’ exercise they pump themselves up to be. Saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a referendum doesn’t give the public much opportunity for inspired thinking. All the creativity is exercised in debating, thinking through and formulating the question itself – which is usually posed in such a way as to limit the scope of voters’ replies.

So in Lewisham people were asked, ‘Are you in favour of the proposal for Lewisham Council to be run in a new way, which includes a mayor, who will be elected by the voters of the borough, to be in charge of the council’s services and to lead Lewisham Council and the community it serves?’ – giving voters no opportunity to opt to preserve the council’s existing committee structure or to opt for a new council structure that didn’t include a mayor.

But even if referendum questions were structured to allow the widest possible discussion, there would still be a problem. Referendums are premised on the idea that our elected representatives have become out-of-touch and need to be exposed once more to the pressure of public opinion. This might be a popular view, but it sits uncomfortably with the democratic ideal – which assumes that political power originates in the people and is conferred upon the people’s representatives through an election.

Calls to ‘let the people decide’ overlook the fact that the people have already made the most important political decision of all: who will make decisions and takes actions on our behalf? The demand for referendums might look very democratic – but it is a way of looking down at the electorate, seeing them not as the originators and final arbiters of political power, but as sidelined spectators who should be allowed to chip in to discussions every now and then.

New Labour is determined to impose mayoral referendums on both the people and their representatives – and any elected body that dares to question why risks ministerial censure. So when the councillors of Bradford Metropolitan District Council decided against a referendum, Stephen Byers, secretary of state for transport, local government and the regions, said that he was ‘minded’ to require them to do so (4).

The London Borough of Southwark was given a similar instruction by local government minister Nick Raynsford; while Dudley council escaped the same fate only by agreeing to carry out further consultation to ‘alleviate the concerns of the secretary of state’ (5). Local councils, it seems, are more accountable to government ministers than they are to their own electorates.

Spare a final thought for the borough councillors of prime minister Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency. In an effort designed to please both Tony and their electorate, councillors consulted ‘with local people, businesses, town and Parish councils, various consultation groups and council staff’ before publicly announcing that an elected mayor was the best way forward for Sedgefield. However, in a government-imposed mayoral referendum, 11,869 voters said no and 10,628 said yes (turnout 33 percent), somewhat undermining the legitimacy of the council’s decision. Then, in a volte face that only confirmed the referendum’s farcical nature, council leader Brian Stephens claimed to be ‘very satisfied with the result’… (6).

Where democratic elections have given people the ability to choose the representatives they want and to rid themselves of the rest, government-imposed mayoral referendums turn democracy into a spectator sport.

Read on:

Forging democracy, by Ciaran Guilfoyle

(1) See Lewisham says ‘yes’ to elected mayor, Lewisham Online

(2) ‘Referendums welcome mayors across England’, Local Government Chronicle, 26 October 2001

(3) Lewisham Council press release, 13 September 2001 (.pdf format)

(4) Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions press release, 11 October 2001

(5) Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions press release

(6) Sedgefield Council press release, 19 October 2001

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