The Government has presented Bristol with a decision of profound significance. A choice that has the potential to transform the city’s future. Next May we will be asked to vote on whether we want an elected mayor. Similar votes will occur in a number of other great British cities. The debate over the merits of a city mayor has yet to achieve a high public profile locally. But it will – or, at least, should – gather momentum over the coming months.
I spent today at the Watershed at the Should Bristol have an elected mayor? event organised by the Festival of Ideas. There were presentations from academics and researchers, local councillors and local MPs, and members of the local business community. We also had some high profile visitors from out of town – Joanna Averley from Centre for Cities; Lord Adonis of the Institute for Government; Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham; and, as the headline act, Ken Livingstone. There was a decent amount of time given over to audience comment and questions, and audience members posed some probing questions about the role a mayor might play in the future governance of the city.
Whether by accident or design, the spectrum of views represented on the stage and from the floor was weighted heavily in favour of a city led by an elected mayor. Nonetheless, several people were rightly concerned about precisely how a mayor would fit into the landscape of local government, accountability and efficiency, and the dangers of populism.
It may be that the spectrum of opinion at this event was not representative of opinion among the broader electorate of Bristol. It may well be that a sizeable proportion of the electorate of Bristol have never given a moment’s thought to the desirability or otherwise of an elected mayor. No doubt many people are not yet aware that there is a vote heading their way.
My aim here is not to review today’s event or the arguments for and against an elected mayor. All I’ll say is that I found the day very stimulating.
My aim here is rather to reflect on how we foster a rational and informed debate more widely. We need to raise people’s consciousness not only that this issue is on the agenda, but also what is at stake. How do we get people to engage and to explore the potential?
I don’t offer any very specific answers. But I know what I think the wrong answer is.
We face tough times. Economic crisis and fiscal consolidation are bringing with them unemployment, public sector budget cuts, pay freezes and the erosion of living standards. Bristol is at least as well placed as any other UK city to survive in this hostile environment. It is creative and entrepreneurial and has thrived despite the lack of stable local political leadership. Yet, there is no ground for complacency. It is a city of great inequality and untapped potential. The city – the city-region of Greater Bristol – needs to pull together to minimise the negative impacts of the current severe economic shock on its citizens. It needs to pull together to compete in a more hostile global environment.
Would a mayor help us in achieving this goal? How should we even begin to discuss the proposition that it might?
One conclusion I took away from today’s event is that the discussion cannot take place within the constraints of conventional local political debates. It cannot be left to local councillors to put the arguments for and against, to shape the way in which the local electorate comes to understand what is at stake.
There are three main reasons.
First, we’re talking about imagining potential and exploring visions of what could be possible if the world were arranged differently. It is not necessarily a great idea to rely on those with a strong stake in keeping the world as it is.
Second, it is, understandably, hard for councillors to call a truce and step outside the confines of existing engagements. Battle lines are already drawn; the trenches dug. The mayoral debate simply opens up another front in an ongoing war of attrition.
The issue is simply too important to let that happen.
We only have to think about the fiasco of the Alternative Vote referendum to appreciate how an issue that, in principle, was not party political can be hijacked. Whether you agree with the outcome or not, there is no dispute that the AV debate was poisoned by political parties injecting all sorts of misinformation and seeking to score party political points. Rational debate and evaluation of the alternatives on the basis of this information was impossible. Clearly that was about Westminster politics more than local politics. But the risks of a local repeat in the mayoral debate is real – the temptations to local politicians are great.
Third, the point of having an elected mayor would be to move beyond local politics as we know it. It is about transcending party political frictions. It is about working across artificial boundaries, be they administrative or sectoral. It is to create focus and a focal point. A mayor must set out a vision of what Bristol has achieved, and what Bristol can achieve. A mayor needs to make sure the world knows what Bristol is about and where it’s going. And a mayor needs to bring people together to realise the vision. A mayor needs to be someone who can tap into and release the potential across the public, private and voluntary sectors to ensure that Bristol continues to thrive. This is about formal legal powers. But it is also about so-called “soft” power. It is about influence, persuasion and inviting people to be part of something transformative. It is about taking the leverage conveyed by the title and the office of mayor and putting it to work. It requires charisma and it requires inclusivity.
For these reasons, freeing up the debate means holding it outside the confines of conventional politics, while, at the same time, recognising that local politicians can make an invaluable contribution to the debate drawing on their experience of what it takes to run a large conurbation.
So civil society is presented with a challenge. The Government has charged us with making a decision of profound significance. It could be a once in a lifetime opportunity. We each have a responsibility to come to our own decision about whether a mayor for Bristol is a good idea or not. But we need some members of the community to go beyond that. We need them to work to ensure that the sound arguments for and against an elected mayor are heard. We need them to challenge misinformation from wherever it originates. That will allow voters to make an informed decision. That is the challenge.
If you are interested in keeping track of the debate, and the arguments in favour of moving to a mayor, then the Bristol Elected Mayor campaign is worth checking out.
Today’s event was a great start. But there is everything still to do.
Image: © picsfive – Fotolia.com