This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
Given the current anti-politics mood, or at least anti-party politics mood, the climate for achieving support for directly-elected mayors in our major cities should have been highly favourable.
It is, after all, a system that gives independent candidates a better chance, and relieves party groups of the power to choose who leads a local council.
It was not easy to predict the outcomes of the recent round of referenda in our major cities on this matter. The opinion polling was unsatisfactory (often including the opinions of those who were not holding a referendum), and contradictory, with different campaign wording producing different results.
But when the votes were counted, it was a triumph for the status quo and entrenched interests of the local political establishments. Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield, Coventry, Leeds and Bradford voted ‘No’ to the idea.
Of the big cities required by legislation to hold a referendum, only Bristol voted ‘Yes’.
The predominant media reaction to the results has been that they are a rebuff to the government that championed the idea. David Cameron was made to look silly for having announced he would chair a “cabinet” of elected mayors.
This will prove to be a rather more exclusive gathering than had been envisaged. The coverage gives a clue to the motivation in voting; although the idea was originally championed by New Labour, it’s been more recently identified as a “flagship” coalition policy.
For some voters, it seems, a ‘No’ vote was a chance to give the government a kick. Rather than voting on the merits of the issue, at least some will have used the chance of a protest vote against Cameron and Clegg.
Alongside this, faced with resistance to the plan from most of his councillors in the relevant cities, Labour leader Ed Miliband kept his support for the idea very low-key.
Out of 58 referenda held so far, only 15 have passed the idea and 43 have rejected it. The fact that in Liverpool and Leicester it was decided to invest a directly-elected mayor without a referendum was not exactly a show of confidence.
Yet I suspect that pundits who conclude that the idea has run out of steam are being too hasty. For a start, only in Stoke has the arrangement actually been ditched – although there is a prospect of Hartlepool voting to abolish it.
In Doncaster, although the mayoral system has been problematic, the May referendum result was to keep it. That referendum was not imposed. If the government quietly forgets about trying to force the issue as part of a grand scheme, this could allow it to flourish.
Change must come, as Tony Benn was fond of saying, “from the bottom up”. Thus, growth could come in a patchwork manner. There could be irregular referenda in towns and smaller cities, with the results passing under the radar of the national media.
Cumulatively, the change in the nature of our local democracy could be significant.
The “bottom up” mechanism for driving change is via petitions, whereby, if five per cent of the local electorate sign up, a local referendum is automatically triggered. Under the mechanism organisers have a year to gather the signatures, but, contrary to trends elsewhere, coupons sent in from leaflets or via an advertisement in the local paper count while signatures emailed or adding to a website e-petition do not.
The threshold is challenging, but far from impossible.
In May, Salford offered a textbook example. The circumstances by which the city came to have a directly-elected mayor were so wonderfully messy, they could have been lifted from an Ealing comedy.
A local property-owner, Geoffrey Berg, had a dispute with Salford City Council over the condition of an empty shop. The council claimed it was an eyesore; Berg denied there had been any complaints and argued the council was being officious by wanting “it repainted another colour”.
Berg is a member of the English Democrats, and he and his colleagues gathered a petition with 9,062 valid signatures calling for a mayoral referendum. This was over the required five per-cent threshhold, and the ensuing referendum results produced 17,344 in favour to 13,653 against. It was a clear majority despite a turnout of just 18 per cent.
The ticket that Berg and his colleagues pitched to voters, both in gathering signatures and campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote, was of lower council tax. In Salford, the Band D council tax is £1,523.29, which is exceptionally high.
The council has a heavy Labour majority, and the prospects of that changing seemed unrealistic. Yet many locals who might not vote Conservative or Lib Dem were happy to shake things up a bit.
Quite how a directly-elected mayor would have a causal link to lowering the council tax bill was never quite explained, but clearly some locals were prepared to give it a punt.
While Ian Stewart, the Labour candidate, was duly elected, he had not hitherto been the council’s leader. That was councillor John Merry. So, the new arrangement has already had some impact.
What are the prospects elsewhere? In Stafford, effort is underway to gather signatures supporting a directly-elected mayor for the local borough council. It is run by former council worker Christine Williams, who describes herself as a working-class pensioner who gets around on a walking stick.
Her website is not a professional project – if anything, it’s amateurish – but so what? Much better that Stafford has a referendum because Christine Williams wants it to happen, rather than because David Cameron wants it.
In Carlisle, however, local Conservative MP John Stevenson backs the idea of an elected mayor while Labour council leader councillor Joe Hendry is against it. Elsewhere, party affiliations might be transposed.
Council leaders of all party affiliations, it would seem, show as much enthusiasm for the concept as turkeys do for Christmas. Fine, if the initiative has to come from already-elected MPs, they are at least well placed to lead a push for petition signatures.
Rather than issue grand pronouncements from Westminster, let John Stevenson walk the talk. Let him be the change, and gather the 4,000 names needed for a referendum to be held within six months of their submission.
Of course, achieving the signature count is often the easy bit. Christine Eborall, a community activist in Ealing, has exposed how a grassroots campaign for an elected mayor was sabotaged by councillors, MPs and government.
In Stitch-up in Ealing, she tells how her hard-working team managed the petition, but lost the referendum, albeit only by a couple of thousand votes.
She says she was “opposed every step of the way – by all the councillors, all four local political parties, two local Labour MPs and poorly-conceived legislation. The few councillors not opposed to elected mayors were whipped into line.
Community and residents’ groups, many dependent on council funding or support, kept their heads down.” But that referendum was nearly a decade ago. Perhaps she should try again.
Tory MP Douglas Carswell, a localist guru of the Conservative Party, might have the answer as to why Eborall’s campaign was apparently sabotaged.
With Tory MEP Dan Hannan he jointly authored the book The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain. He feels that “a directly-elected civic leader” is an advantage for a city, but that “arguing in favour of directly-elected mayors – rather like the arguments in favour of unitary councils – are all about trying to change the shape of local government.
A real localist ought to devolve power – and then let local government shape and define itself.” He adds: “We should not leave it to the Whitehall establishment to make localism happen.”
On a slightly surreal tack, Marge Simpson is told in one episode of The Simpsons: “Our research shows that one person cannot make a difference, no matter how big a screwball she is.” Her response is: “I’ll show them what one screwball can do.”
Then later: “I guess one person can make a difference, but most of the time they probably shouldn’t.” The script was about censorship of cartoons, but the thrust of the sentiments strikes close to what is at the heart of mayoral referenda.
So, in an untidy, hit-or-miss way, now that the system is tenuously in place, the number of directly-elected mayors will grow. The spur, however, will not be a high-minded sentiment about democracy. It will more likely be spurred by personal grievance, as typically complacent and seemingly politically well-entrenched councils are challenged by referenda instigated by annoyed individuals.
The mistreatment of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on a trading matter by a council official sparked the Arab Spring.
Whilst British voters are unlikely to protest so extremely, it could well be that local democracy is renewed on a small wave of moral conflagrations against municipal grievances.
Any council leaders tempted to relax after the high-profile mayoral referenda debacle of 3 May would be well advised not to.