Thursday, March 29, 2012

Events in Leicester tonight show its mayoral system does not work

Earlier this evening Leicester City Council voted through a backdated pay increase for the city's Mayor, Deputy Mayor and five Assistant Mayors.

This is a crass decision at a time when so many people are facing pay freezes. Clearly, as far as the Leicester Labour Party is concerned, we are not all in this together.

But there is more to this story than a few local politicians doing themselves well from the public purse. Because what this evening's events really displays are the dangers of the mayoral system in local government.

I have never liked the mayoral system, and my objections were well expressed by Matthew Huntbach in a letter to the Guardian last month:
The committee system of local government, with wards small enough for personal contact still to be a key aspect of winning, and offering a career path into politics to those who don't have the fortune to run a city-wide campaign, is a glorious part of Britain's democratic heritage. 
Your claim that all power in the hands of one person is more effective than power shared by representatives of various opinions echoes the line used in the last century in favour of a similar system of governance, though at a national rather than local level, that it "makes the trains run on time".
Supporters of the mayoral system will argue that it is democratic because the mayor is elected by the voters and then held to account by elected councillors. But the way the system has been implemented in Leicester means that the Mayor is barely held to account at all.

Leicester's mayoral system was brought in without the usual referendum by the then Labour-controlled council. The first mayoral election was held last year, at the same time as the scheduled all-out election for the council. No doubt the party's leading lights were attracted by the idea of holding both elections at at time when the Coalition had been in power for a year and was becoming less popular.

So successful was their plan that Sir Peter Soulsby, the Labour candidate, was elected as Mayor and the party also won 52 of the city's 54 council seats.

But can a mayor be held to account in a one-party state?

Tonight's events suggest not. The vote on the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Assistant Mayors' pay was a whipped vote and, though it appears that some Labour councillors were unhappy with the idea of pay rises and backdating, they voted for the motion as they had been told.

And who is ultimately in charge of the Labour whip? Step forward Sir Peter Soulsby.

It is easy - and right - to be critical of the Labour councillors tonight. But the more important lesson of this affair is that no mayor should be allowed to operate in a one-party state as Sir Peter does in Leicester.

When the Greater London Authority was established, the MLAs were elected by a proportional system to make sure that no one party could dominate the assembly and that there were several parties represented.

I am a Liberal Democrat and would like to see PR used for every council. Such as system would have given Labour a thumping majority in Leicester last year, but nothing like the farcical balance the council now enjoys.

But if we cannot have that then at the very least council must be prevented from holding all-out elections and mayoral elections at the same time.

The existing ruling party will only ever do this if it thinks it will be to its electoral advantage, so allowing this gives it far too much power.

This is an important point and, given that David Cameron seems to have inherited Tony Blair's love of elected mayors, it is one that needs to be made loud and often.

1 comment:

Charlieman said...

That was a long post, Jonathan, but it scarcely scratches the concerns of Leicester citizens. Thank you, all the same.

"But can a mayor be held to account in a one-party state?"

That depends on how the local press challenges him. Or how unelected politicians and voluntary/community groups present their arguments. Reflection on the proposed Aylestone Meadows developments was achieved outside the council chamber.

The argument about whether mayoral and council elections should have been conducted on the same day is a minor distraction. Ditto the electoral system used for those elections.

The big argument must be that no individual has the skills and talent that are demanded to look after (not "run" or "manage") Leicester. Looking after Leicester requires a collective of differing thinkers.

Twisting the words of Groucho Marx: "Please accept my resignation. I don't want to represent any city that will accept me as mayor."