Why an Elected Mayor is a bad idea

On Wednesday 2nd May we are holding a couple of last minute briefings on the arguments for and against a Directly Elected Mayor for Bristol. For the purposes of the debate I am giving arguments against the move to a Mayor. For the avoidance of doubt, that doesn’t mean that I am personally against the idea of a Mayor. But someone had to put the arguments against! Here is the text accompanying what I am planning to say – or at least I’ll say as much of this as I can fit in to the time available!

One of the key things that I would like to get across is that it is important that people vote, and that they vote on the basis of which model of local government they think should be used. We face profound questions regarding how best to govern the city so that it realises its potential. It would be unfortunate if people used the referendum simply as a chance to vote against the Coalition government or the Liberal Democrats.

Arguing against an Elected Mayor

Several reasons have been advanced for seeing an Elected Mayor as undesirable. Some of them are genuine issues, either of principle or practice. But some appear intended primarily to scare people off the idea. Or problems are asserted on the basis of little or no evidence.

Excessive cost

One of the most prominent arguments made by the No to a Mayor campaign in Bristol and in other cities is cost. The slogan “Million Pound Mayor” is catchy. It is being used to suggest that a Mayor would be more expensive than the current arrangement.

Personally I think this argument is feeble and shouldn’t really be given much consideration. There are two responses to it.

First, it is not possible to say with certainty whether a Mayor would cost more. The figures quoted are based upon the assumption that the rest of the senior management structure of the council stays in place. If, on the other hand, there is a restructuring that, for example, removes the Chief Executive – as there was in Leicester when it adopted a Mayor – it may be that the annual costs of senior management are the same or lower. The other component of the cost is running a mayoral election. The costing assumes that this is a free-standing exercise. In practice it is likely to run alongside other elections and the costs would therefore be lower.

Second, even if we accept the £1m figure to be accurate we have to ask whether spending this on a Mayor is necessarily a bad thing or, indeed, whether it is extravagant. The £1m is over a four year term. £250,000 a year starts to sound a bit less daunting. A Mayor is unlikely to get paid more than £100,000 a year. Is that a lot? Of course it is a lot of money to most of us. But is it a lot of money to pay someone responsible for the council budget of over £300m and the economic future of a city with an income of £1bn? Anyone in the private sector who is responsible for that sort of money would be getting paid many times more. Not only that, if a Mayor were to have the impacts upon the local economy claimed for the role then it would pay back that investment of £250,000 a year several times over.

So I think arguments against a Mayor on the basis of cost are weak.

Corruption and undue influence

Some are concerned that a Mayor with greater power and greater scope to act unilaterally without detailed scrutiny would be more open to corruption. Similarly, there are suggestions that Mayors will be more likely to be influenced by unaccountable advisors or by lobby groups of special interests. And that all this would inevitably be happening in secret.

Clearly if we look internationally there are examples of Mayors who have been successfully prosecuted for corruption. Equally, there are systems in which Mayors are particularly responsive to particular sectional – typically business – interests.

But is the risk or level of corruption or undue influence higher with a Mayor than it is where a council is run by the more conventional Council Leader plus Cabinet? That is not clear.

It also depends on whether the mayor is weak or strong – the extent of the mayor’s executive powers. A weak mayor may have limited opportunities for either lining his/her pockets or distributing benefits to favoured interests. The proposal we are being asked to vote on this Thursday is relatively weak.

Equally, while the risks of corruption are undoubtedly present under a Mayoral model, whether they are realised depends on the scrutiny system – the checks and balances that guard against inappropriate behaviour – within which the Mayor has to operate. The key question therefore is whether the overall system is robust.

Corruption and undue influence are an ever-present concern, but hardly a compelling argument against change.

A more telling point is that the Localism Act is not very prescriptive on the question of scrutiny. That is, it allows the Mayor to make decisions about key structures. It is not clear that the level of scrutiny of the Mayor’s decisions will be as great as it is under the current model, in part because the thresholds for preventing the Mayor’s policies from being implemented have been raised. The key example cited is that under a Mayor it will require two thirds, rather than half, of the councillors to vote down a budget.

So if these arguments are not strong, are there arguments against a mayor that should be given greater weight? I think there are arguments of principle and practice. I will set them out briefly.

Direct or indirect democracy

Those in favour of a Mayor argue that it is more democratic than the existing model because the Mayor has a direct mandate from the electorate, whereas under the current model the leader of the Council is elected by the 70 councillors. In practice, the Council Leader is elected by a majority of the members of the ruling party group who then need to secure enough support from other parties to get a vote through the full Council. In Bristol’s case therefore we are talking about something like 18 people being key to shaping the outcome.

It is undoubtedly true that the Mayor has his/her own mandate. But that does not mean that the model is by definition more democratic. It is a different model of democracy. The current model relies upon indirect democracy. Those selecting the Council Leader are not just any old 18 people. They are themselves elected. The model is based upon the principle that we elect our councillors and entrust them to elect a Leader. Indirect democracy is a perfectly respectable principle. It is premised upon the belief that well-informed councillors, who have observed and worked with the potential candidates at close quarters, are better placed to select an appropriate person to lead the council than less well-informed voters.

We also need to recognise that there is no quorum for elections and turnout at Mayoral elections is not notably better than other local elections. So all that is required to win is the support of the majority of the typically 25%-35% of voters who bother to vote. Someone could therefore end up being Mayor on the basis of as little as 12.5% of the electorate voting for them. Is that more of a mandate than is delivered by the current system? It is not self-evident that it is.

The key point here is little different from the argument that we don’t have a President. Rather we have a Prime Minister. And we do not elect the Prime Minister. S/He is elected by the party. Few argue that this method of selection means that the Prime Minister does not have the right to govern.

Concentrated or distributed power

Advocates for a Mayor argue that those who are most vocally against the move – who are often existing councillors – are arguing from self-interest. They fear that they will lose power to a Mayor so they don’t want one. There is something to this argument. But it is not the whole story. Non-executive members of the Council – that is, the majority of councillors – don’t have much power to start with and, in practice, a move to a Mayor would not change that position substantially. What a move to a Mayor is more likely to do is to reduce the influence of party groups.

Yet, there is a perfectly legitimate argument that concentrating power in the hands of one person is not as effective or democratic a governance structure as distributing power more widely. There is the argument that one person cannot sensibly be expected to have sufficient grasp of all the relevant issues. Distributing power to those with greater expertise is a wiser system. Distributing power ensures pluralistic decision making: sectional interests are kept in check and good arguments have to be made if one view is to prevail over another. It can therefore be a more rigorous decision-making process. Concentrated power may deliver decisiveness, but it can also deliver divisiveness. It can be antithetical to building consensus and a sense of common purpose. There are also concerns about how a local authority under a Mayor will retain a genuine connection with its communities once power is drawn further upward.

There are also arguments in principle about the desirably of collective deliberation and self-determination. That is why members of the Green party often favour a move back to the committee structure under which all councillors – not just the Cabinet – had an executive role and favour devolution of power to neighbourhood councils to enhance participative democracy. From this perspective, true localism is, by definition, a good thing. And an Elected Mayor is seen as the antithesis to localism.

The cult of the personality politician

The advantage claimed for a Mayor is that the role enhances accountability and gives a focal point for local governance. The Mayor would be Mr (or Ms) Bristol – with a higher public profile and an ability to speak on behalf of the city. The flip side of this is the concern that the Mayoral model encourages a certain type of attention-seeking egoist.

Some who are against the idea of a Mayor are fearful that the city will elect a vacuous celebrity, a fool or a monster. Some feel local politics should be the preserve of local politicians and party groups not independents and amateurs. There are frequent references to the Hartlepool experience where voters elected the Mascot for the football team, H’Angus the monkey. This is seen as a bad thing, although it should be noted that the man in the monkey suit has successfully been re-elected twice as an Independent Mayor. So he must have been doing something right.

Personally, I don’t think there is a significant risk of electing a dysfunctional or clueless celebrity Mayor.

But there is a danger that elections become focused more on personality than policy. That electoral success relies upon self-promotion and elections come to focus upon media persona and charisma rather than policy substance, effective leadership and wisdom.

We should never confuse profile with effectiveness. It hardly seems necessary to refer to the Ken ‘n’ Boris show to demonstrate that point.

There is, I believe, a reason why all but two of the existing Mayors in England have been men.

Will a Mayor make a difference?

There are two components to this question.

First, the evidence that cities with Mayors perform better is hardly overwhelming. Some do, some don’t. Some of the most prominent examples of cities that have been successfully led or turned around by Mayors need to be understood in more detail. It isn’t just the office of the Mayor that plays a role, it is the whole governance structure. An enlightened Mayor may well build a Cabinet of all the talents. They may devolve budgets to neighbourhoods to reanimate and engage citizens. It is equally possible to argue that it is these other features of the structure that made the different to improving economic performance, citizen well-being or engagement.

It is hardly a sophisticated social scientific observation to note that when you change a number of variables at the same time then isolating the impact of changing one of them can be difficult, if not impossible.

This point is explicitly or implicitly conceded by advocates of the move to Mayors. The arguments are typically framed in rather tentative terms: the Mayor ‘may’ bring people together, they ‘should’ tap into all the talent available, and ‘could’ galvanize people to work together. The mayor ‘might’ energize a city. But then again the Mayor might not.

So it all comes down to selecting the right person for the role. The argument boils down to: “Mayors can be good, if you get a good Mayor”.

Another of the arguments for distributed governance is that it reduces the downside risk. Because power isn’t concentrated in one person the costs of ending up with the wrong person occupying one of the roles are less catastrophic.

A second strand to this argument is that, in practice, what the Government is offering is a Mayor with no more powers than the existing Council leader. So it is not obvious that a Mayor is better able to deal with some of the problems facing the city than the Council leader.

It has to be acknowledged that the Government has indicated that it would be willing to hand over more powers to cities. But cities have to make the case.

If there is an agreement between central and local government as part of a “city deal” to transfer powers to local level – in so-called “bespoke decentralisation” – then there is nothing in the legislation that requires the Elected Mayor model to be adopted to achieve this. The Government is, however, giving the strong steer that moving to an Elected Mayor would ease the way.

Given the timings of these negotiations, it comes down to whether the current city leaders are well-placed to secure the best deal for their city through negotiation with the Government. Manchester has managed to secure a good deal with Westminster, without necessarily moving to a Mayor, whereas Liverpool has already agreed to move to a Mayor and yet is perceived by some to have extracted a relatively poor deal from the Government. This has been ascribed to the experience and savvy of the existing leadership.

Are the pressing issues subject to executive power?

In Bristol – indeed in many cities – people get very annoyed about things like public transport and spatial planning. People see the appointment of a Mayor as increasing the oversight of these activities and improving outcomes for citizens.

Yet these are non-executive functions that remain with committees. Moving to a Mayor, at least with the powers on offer initially, will make no difference to the Council’s ability to sort out problems in these policy areas.

Some advocates of the move to a Mayor seem to see it as a panacea for all the ills of city governance. This is mistaken.

The proposal before us isn’t the right one

We are being offered an Elected Mayor for the City of Bristol. We know that Bristol – as a functional economic area – also includes parts of Bath & North East Somerset, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. Some of the major problems in relation to issues like transport and local economic development need to be framed above the level of the local authority. The Local Economic Partnership is a key vehicle for taking some of these issues forward.

A Mayor for the City of Bristol does not deal with problems of co-ordination. Some prominent politicians have suggested that it would make co-ordination across the four local authorities more difficult because liaison would no longer be co-operation between equals. The evidence in support of this argument is thin.

Advocates of Elected Mayors typically see that the move to a mayor would make more sense if it is a so-called Metro Mayor, which would most likely cover the four local authority areas. But that isn’t on offer. The Government has indicated that it would be sympathetic to cities that wished to make the case for moving to a Metro Mayor. But it has offered no indication of the mechanism by which that might happen.

One would also have to say that there is an almost irrational aversion to returning to something that might resemble Avon County Council. This body seems to occupy a particular and peculiar position in Bristol folklore. Everyone seems to recoil from it but I’m not entirely sure they know why. Unless they are well over 50 years old they are very unlikely to be aware of Avon County Council having had any direct impact upon them. The idea that a move to a Metro Mayor would replicate the ACC experience, whatever it was, is a little bizarre.

We can do nothing about it if we get it wrong

There is a concern here at two levels.

First, if we elect a bad Mayor there is no mechanism for removing them during their four year term. The legislation as currently framed includes no power of recall. The Government has promised to put such a power in place at some future point. But that needs to be taken on trust.

Second, there is no going back.

Existing Mayors in England, created under the Local Government Act 2000, can be abolished through a referendum. This happened in Stoke in 2009. They decided that the Mayor had been a mistake. They returned to a Council Leader and Cabinet. There is a vote occurring this year in Doncaster to decide whether to do the same thing.

But for Mayors created under the Localism Act 2011 – like the one being voted on in Bristol – this is not an option. If the city moves to a Mayor and then decides that this was a mistake the only way to revert to a more conventional model of local governance is through primary legislation. A future Government would have to pass an Act of Parliament specifically to allow us. This is intentional. The current Government wants to make it difficult to reverse the decision.

We have to take it on trust

So, in summary, we are being asked to take a local government leap of faith. A Yes vote would be voting to create a Mayor with no more powers than the Council leader, but we must trust that more will come. We have to trust that the Mayor will govern wisely, drawing on all the talents, and establish appropriate scrutiny arrangements – because the legislation is permissive rather than prescriptive. We have to trust that the Government makes good its promise to put in place a power of recall so that if an ineffective Mayor is elected we can remove them or if a Mayor turns bad we can get them out. And most of all we have to trust that the benefits that advocates for Elected Mayors claim for the model – greater focus, co-ordination, leadership, etc – will be delivered. This is by no means certain and, candidly, the evidence to support these claims is by no means compelling.

In every respect it is a leap of faith.

The advocates for a Mayor will argue that the leap is justified. The governance of Bristol is so desperately poor at the moment that desperate measures are necessary. Others would argue that it is a leap in the dark. A step too far, if  you will.

Is a Mayor the right solution?

Strong local governance and strong leadership are no doubt vital. I don’t think anyone disputes that. The question is whether delivering them requires the move to a Mayor. Some people argue that current political arrangements in Bristol are dysfunctional. In particular, there is a lack of strong leadership because the leadership has changed hands several times in recent years. That in itself is indicative of the diversity of views in our city. It isn’t, in itself, a signal that the system of democracy is dysfunctional.

It seems to me that if local political relations are dysfunctional – and I’m not sure they are as dysfunctional in Bristol as they are in some local authorities where one party has ruled seemingly in perpetuity – then a Mayor may not be the right prescription. Certainly that was what Stoke found, to its cost.

If I may use an entirely inappropriate analogy, it seems a little like a couple deciding to have a baby in a bid to save their failing marriage. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Sure, the baby becomes the centre of attention for a while. Both parents and all the relatives may be focused on seeing that its needs are met. Everyone wants to entertain the baby and play with it. But the underlying problems in the parents’ relationship haven’t been dealt with. The disintegration of the marriage has most likely just been postponed. But by then the problems are that much more complicated.

The couple would have been better advised to seek counselling so they first put their relationship on a firmer footing. Only once they can provide a loving environment within which to nurture a child would it be wise to seek to have one.

Should political Bristol be seeking counselling now, and leave a Mayor for later when relations have improved?

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