The Mayoral Referendum

The referendum for a Mayor in Leeds

On May 3rd 2012, the day of the local elections, voters in Leeds are to be asked to vote in a referendum on whether or not they would like their city to be run by a directly elected Mayor rather than a the Leader of the political party with the majority of seats on the Council. There are some superficial attractions to the idea but some very real dangers and I do hope that people will understand what they are.

When Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair, it was in some ways it a repeat of what happened when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher. The leader of the ruling party stepped down, the new leader took over and of course the newspapers were full of comments from 'offended' electors saying that they had not voted for the newcomer. Such issues have fueled calls for city Mayors to be directly elected. The fact is that few voters ever do vote directly for the Prime Minister or council leader. The only people voting directly for Gordon Brown were the electors of his constituency. That is our tradition and it has its advantages. Presidents in countries like the USA and France serve the full term they are elected for even if they become very unpopular. In the UK we do things differently.

Mayors are a direct contradiction in our political system where we do not separate the executive, (the government), from the legislature, (Parliament). MPs who make laws also form the pool of people who are appointed to run government departments and one - the leader of the largest party in Parliament - is invited by the Queen to become Prime Minister.

There is a parallel in local government. Councillors decide on policies and some of them also have a responsibility to direct key areas of Council work. One of them leads the work of the whole Council. Setting up an executive mayor is fraught with risk as the election campaign locally could easily degenerate into a battle of personality. Do we really want a local version of a Boris versus Ken contest? A mayor when elected can choose who he or she wants to form part of the executive to run Council services and to pay them handsomely. Councillors are powerless, being guaranteed only two seats on this executive. No one can sack the Mayor - you are stuck with him or her for four full years. Elected Councillors loose their powers to hold the decision makers to account - in fact the very rationale for electing local councillors each year can be questioned. I cannot think that it represents any kind of progress or improvement to so completely sever the connection between local representatives and the responsibility for delivering the essential services that local people rely on.

My views on this matter are directly informed by the eleven years experience in politics that I gained from being a Leeds City Councillor myself and for some of that time being responsible for a major service, Education. I could not make cavalier decisions, riding roughshod over the views of electors or those of my political colleagues. The Labour Councillors, who had trusted me with the responsibilities I had been given also checked that everything that I did was true to the values for which we were all elected. In fact I do not really understand why the momentum for referenda on mayors has gained ground. In London it is different. Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council leaving our most important and largest city, the capital, without any form of strategic government. The local boroughs that remained were very parochial and too small for any kind of major planning of transport, or infrastructure development. The idea of a Mayor for London was a 'fix' for those problems. But in Leeds we have a good system for local government with clear accountability for its leaders. It does not need to change.

There is a glib aphorism, 'Voters get the government or Council they deserve.' My big fear is that if we have all-controlling mayors in big cities such as Leeds, people will get the local government they most definitely do not deserve - the possibility of an autocrat who can ride roughshod over local sensitivities, someone who can ignore any opposition and someone that can reduce local elections to a beauty contest between aspirant celebrities hungry for absolute and unfettered power over our local affairs. We go down that route at our peril.