Saturday, May 14, 2011

Leicester's one-party state

Last Thursday Sir Peter Soulsby, the Labour Party candidate, was elected as Leicester's first executive mayor. At the the same time Labour won 52 of the 54 seats on the city council, which is the body charged with scrutinising his running of the city.

This was a remarkable achievement for Labour, but it does present the city and the executive mayor model of government with some problems.

I have never been a great fan of elected mayors. Their introduction was born out of a Blairite impatience with the compromises and coalition building of traditional local government. The idea of a strong figure who will bang heads together and get things done has a faintly totalitarian air to it.

Nor has the system done much to increase public involvement or interest in local government. As find I (a little fancifully) observed in my old New Statesman column:
leading GLC councillors were public figures whose reputations reached far beyond London. So much so that councillor-spotting became a popular hobby with schoolboys. They thronged the approaches to County Hall with their notebooks, squealing with excitement when a Tony Banks or a Dave Wetzel came into view.

You won’t find them at the new City Hall. London politics has not produced a figure of substance for years. Some people mention Nicky Gavron, but I never worked out who he or she was.
And having a Labour Mayor and a near one-party council accentuates these difficulties.

There is certainly a strong case for using a proportional system for electing councils in city's with mayors. The Leicester Mercury's political correspondent has pointed out that under a proportional system Labour would have won 35 seats, the Tories 11 and the Lib Dems 8 - still a thumping majority, but a far healthier balance for politics in the city.

Or if that is beyond the pale after another recent result, then at least for electing the mayor and the councillors in different years.

Labour certainly saw the advantages of bringing in the new executive mayor regime and electing the council in a year when the government was unpopular. Uniquely, that regime was brought in without a referendum and pressure was put on Labour councillors to support the move.

I have already heard Labour people crowing that the two opposition councillors (one Tory, one Lib Dem who used to be a Tory) hate each other and will not second each other's motions, so there will be no opposition at all. But Labour's brand of local politics is anti-pluralist enough as it is I doubt this set up will do them much good in the long run. As the Mercury correspondent has also pointed out, in 1968 the Conservatives held every seat on the city council but they soon lost their position of hegemony.

After the result I tweeted that it was a good thing Labour was so faction ridden in Leicester, otherwise there would be no opposition at all. The editor of the Leicester Mercury tweeted back that he did not see it that way.

And, of course, the Mercury does now has an even more important role in scrutinising the government of the city. That is a role, incidentally, that I am more confident it will fulfil than I would have been a few years ago.

Meanwhile, maybe we bloggers have a role to play too?

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