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Debate: Mayors, Direct Election of

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Should mayors be directly elected?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

Background and context

In many towns and cities throughout the world, mayors are directly elected by the citizens, with varying but often considerable power to govern locally on their behalf. A town council, made up of separately elected representatives from different neighbourhoods (often called wards in English), usually balances this concentration of power in the hands of one man or woman. Until very recently, this model of local government was not used in the UK, where councillors make decisions through a committee system in which the leader of the majority party has the greatest power. In urban areas the councillors usually choose a mayor from among their number, usually on the basis of seniority rather than party affiliation; the mayor has no real power but is rather a ceremonial position. In 1997 the Labour party manifesto promised a directly elected mayor for London, and perhaps elsewhere, if the citizens there wanted one. A referendum in London was passed by a large majority, and Ken Livingstone, a left-winger who left the Labour Party to run as an independent, beat the candidates of the main parties to gain office in 2000. Since then local referenda on having an elected mayor have been held in several areas with mixed results, but no other town or city has yet held a mayoral election.

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Argument #1

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Yes

An elected mayor would revitalise local democracy. At present many people have no idea who their local councillors are, or who leads their council, perhaps because collective decision-making is generally unexciting. It is not surprising then that in some urban areas in Britain fewer than 1 in 4 adults bother to vote in local elections – the worst turnout in the EU. An elected mayor would act as a focus for local people, both symbolically and as someone with real power to improve their lives. This in turn would turn attention to local democracy and increase turnout in elections.

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No

Directly elected mayors would do little to renew local democracy. In the past, councils in the UK used to have a great deal of power, controlling schools, housing and local utilities, and setting budgets and raising revenues more or less as they wished. Since 1979 these powers have been greatly reduced with power increasingly centralised in Whitehall, which also greatly limits councils’ financial freedom so that local taxes bear little relation to local expenditure. Not surprisingly, as the real decision-making power of local councils has diminished, so has the proportion of citizens who think it is worth voting for them. There is no reason to think that people will flock in greater numbers to vote for a mayor with exactly the same restrictions upon his or her freedom of action.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Electing mayors would improve accountability in local government. At present an elaborate and confusing series of committees make decisions in most areas, making it easy for individual councillors or parties to dodge responsibility for unpopular decisions or failed policies. Placing this power in the hands of an elected mayor would streamline decision-making and increase accountability. A mayor who failed to improve local services or in other ways implement their campaign promises would have little chance of re-election.

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No

An elected mayor would give the appearance of accountability, but at the risk of stifling democratic debate. At present policies are debated by council committees, and then by the full council, which represents a wide spectrum of views and interests; the public and media can usually attend these meetings, so overall proposals have to survive detailed examination. Focusing power in the hands of one person risks policy mistakes, ignores the interests of minorities, and allows for the possibility of corruption, especially if they are in office for four years and cannot be removed by vote of the council. Greater accountability could instead be achieved by use of citizens’ juries to consider particular local issues, and local referenda on issues such as the level of council tax.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Elected mayors would have a powerful voice. Although the power of a mayor may be limited by central government or by the need for policy and budgetary approval from councillors, many or even most of whom may be from different political parties, an elected local leader would still have huge informal powers. Elected mayors will have considerable popular legitimacy, especially if their victory margin was substantial, and a high media profile, allowing them to rally opinion against government policies affecting their area and to create a local consensus in support of their own actions.

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No

The position of elected mayor is likely to attract populist and maverick candidates, who will seek to capitalise on the unpopularity of party politics with “single issue sloganising, glib promises and headline grabbing” (Ken Walker, Labour leader of Middlesborough council). In office such candidates are likely to alienate elected councillors and other crucial local partners, to disappoint voters as their promises run up against the actual limitations of their power, and to neglect many aspects of local government in favour of their own pet issue. This danger is even greater if a far-right candidate were to exploit local concerns about immigration and asylum-seekers to inflame racial tensions.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Elected mayors would speak on behalf of their communities, raising the profile of their town or city nationally and internationally. This could be particularly valuable when negotiating with businesses, helping to draw valuable investment into their area and overcoming bureaucratic hurdles that typically hinder development. In addition, mayors would give local government in general a higher profile after years of increasing centralisation by national government. Acting collectively, and through the change in attitudes their higher media profile would generate, mayors would be able to draw power away from the centre once again and bring it closer to the people.

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No

Electing a maverick candidate could do the image of a town or city a great deal of harm rather than good. Cities such as Birmingham have already been highly successful at attracting inward investment under the present system of local government. In any case, the major bureaucratic constraints on investment relate to issues of subsidy and tax-breaks, which are outlawed by the EU, and to national taxation and planning policies, set in Whitehall, none of which will be affected by an elected mayor.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Elected mayors would allow talented individuals to make a difference, regardless of their party affiliation. The present system rewards long-serving and loyal party hacks rather than innovative managers, thinkers and leaders; polls show that the public think councillors put party politics above the needs of their community. If mayors were directly elected, local parties would have to find dynamic candidates with a proven ability to solve problems and manage big organisations, or risk such candidates running and winning as independents.

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No

Talented individuals with a proven track record are unlikely to seek mayoral office unless local government is given much greater autonomy by central government. Regardless of the system of election, if real power is offered, real leaders will be attracted by the prospect of wielding it and will rise to prominence.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Electing a mayor would not concentrate power too much in the hands of one individual. Although models of local government vary, mayors usually have to pick a cabinet from among the elected councillors and to seek approval for their policies and budget from the whole elected council. A mayor would thus have to persuade and build a consensus in order to govern effectively. This is a more transparent approach to local decision making than the present one, and should therefore be free from the accusations of corruption and nepotism that have been levied at the old system.

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No

An elected mayor would have too much power, making the prospect of its misuse alarming. If the mayor has the power to choose their own cabinet of councillors, this could be as small as three members, all of whom could be sacked at will for opposing the wishes of the mayor. If the mayor has the right to delegate powers to his cabinet members, they equally have the authority to reserve all the real powers to themselves. And those councillors outside the cabinet would have little to do other than to monitor broken streetlights and the standard of refuse collection in their ward. Why would talented and ambitious people stand for council in these circumstances, and what would the absence of such people do for the council’s oversight of the mayor?

Motions:

  • This House calls for directly elected mayors
  • This House would elect its mayor
  • This House wants strong leadership from City Hall

In legislation, policy, and the real world:

See also

External links and resources:

Books:

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