Thursday, 3 May 2012

Elected Mayors... why limit ourselves?

It's been said that one of the reasons we must have elected mayors in Bristol is that it provides someone that people can vote for that has a "city level" programme of policies. The implication is that without an elected mayor, directly elected by the whole population of the council area, we couldn't achieve this.

That is patently false.

A lot of the reasons being given for the "benefits" of an elected mayor are not actually unique or even guaranteed by the use of such a "democratic" tool. More transparency, a city wide mandate, accountability...they're all just smoke and mirrors.

First of all, a Mayor is no more city-wide than the Leader of the Council. In fact I would go as far as to say they are LESS so. A Mayor has to consider how to get elected, the more candidate the more chance a prominent figure may get in, usually from one of the big three parties. Does this mean that they have to be "city-wide" in their scope? Of course not!

By tackling, for example, issues around anti-student feelings in Bristol, the in the Clifton, Cotham, Horfield and other such areas of the city, a Mayor could generate a serious amount of token support that may well help to guarantee an election, without that individual having any care for other less student oriented areas of the city. Indeed in Doncaster their mayor was elected precisely because he was a protest vote and struck a chord with a very specific set of politically motivated voters.

By contrast the Leader of the Council has to get the endorsement of a significant number of councilors from all around the city, councilors that are going to be concerned that the person they make leader has to be right for their area. By it's very process, albeit currently behind closed doors, the Leader has to have the confidence of half the city's councilors, who in turn had to gain the confidence of you, their voting public.

Seriously...how can the former be guaranteed, or even LIKELY, to be more city focused than a Leader of the Council?

That's not to say that the Leader role is perfect. Currently we elect local councilors to deal with our local issues, and we don't know what Leader we'll get on the council. This has been referred to as being a "stitch up" among other things, with the pretense that it's some kind of secret cabal that is trying to get a Leader in that the public simply don't want. That in itself is highly fantastical, but is born of the reality of the lack of transparency in our current system.

Now, let's see...there is a lack of transparency, so what could the solution be? Ah, of course, a new democratic construct that actually offers only a little transparency up front, to "tie you in" as an electorate, after which a democratic deficit in the processes mean that the individual can sit in office for 4 years finding it very easy to NOT do what they said they would do.

Analogy: If we built a house and it had no windows, what should we do? Knock some holes in the walls and put some windows in...or knock the whole house down and build a barn?

The system isn't right now, take the comparable national system. A Party Leader is selected in a transparent election process from their peers. This person has to publicly lay out their direction for the future, that forms the basis then of the manifesto that is put to the people, transparently, in an election. We elect MPs, these are local representatives who's primary purpose is to ensure that our local needs are being met on a national stage...but at the same time we know that if we vote for that Tory, Lib Dem or Labour MP that they come with the possibility of helping that manifesto happen.

This doesn't happen at local elections, we just elect local people on local issues. Some may think about who they want to run the council but this will be a strictly partisan thing since very little will be guaranteed about how the council will be run before the election is over. Why can't prospective leaders be put forward BEFORE each local election? Councilors could then pledge their initial support to individual leaders leaving the public in no doubt as to the direction the council would go in if they picked that councilor. And how would they know the direction? Because the leaders would have to put forward their manifesto for the city at the same time.

If this sounds a lot like the level of information and commitment to the city that you'd get from a Mayor, you'd be right, because functionally the roles are exactly the same...the only thing that differs right now are the processes. Do we need to knock down the house when a little renovation would solve our problems? It seems like (expensive) overkill! Just reform the processes, cheaply and easily.

From this you know that you'll have a leader that will have to cater to various specific parts of the city, and not concentrate on issues that only affect higher voting wards alone, because if they don't they will lose their position quickly, either through the councilors abandoning them or the voters sending a message through the change in their elected councilor next time around.

This leads on nicely to the next thing...accountability. Whoever tries to tell you that a person sitting in office for 4 years unable to be touched is more accountable than a Leader that knows a bad set of results for their party in every three years out of four could oust them, is a bloody liar.

But then the argument goes that it's better to have everyone choose directly rather than have their vote diluted through to a small core of individuals...yet it is that level of layers of democracy that gives us power. A councilor is much more in tune with keeping their voters happy in their small area than a mayor needs to be on a city wide level. A councilor is therefore much more able to be influenced and lobbied than a Mayor is. Likewise, that councilor is then a significant proportion of a Leader's support, and so they have a lot of lobbying power there too.

We have great connections with who runs our councils and how, if we wanted to exercise that power (and had more transparent information to do it on). You stick an elected mayor in there and we lose that power. Sure, we directly elect them, but then we have no sway over them until they decide they need to get us on board for their next term (if they want more than one go at the job). Worse, by economies of scale less individuals will find their voices are effective as more of their voices will fall in to groupings of populations that simply aren't necessary to listen to for the mayor to get re-elected anyway, and in geographies that make it harder for those individuals to spread any feeling of antipathy that could have an effect on policy direction.

So...

People will say that a Mayor will work for the whole of the city, but that is just an "ideal" situation, not guaranteed.
People will say that a Mayor will be more accountable, but depending on the politics of the city, and what the mayor does, that's not guaranteed
People will say the Mayor has a mandate, democratically and directly elected, but with a flawed voting system that can see a mayor with less than 50% of the vote winning, more people could *not* want their policies than want them
People will say that the Mayor won't need to be a career politician....but they are being largely delusional as to the realities of politics.
People will say it will help local governance grow versus national governance, yet the power that central parties gain by having a single Mayor to control through their party system doesn't allow that argument to hold any water.

The arguments for an elected mayor just don't make logical sense...they *sound* nice, and they *look* nice....who doesn't want MORE elections to directly say who we want to take a quasi-dictatorial role over our daily lives? It's gesture politics at it's worst, because not only does it not enhance anything that couldn't be enhanced on it's own, it actually removes safeguards.

I hope, for Bristol's sake, that they've voted No in this referendum.

Turns out that Bristol doesn't know what's good for them. While other major cities have realised that the system is flawed, we've jumped in (on a low turnout) and said "sure, let's give ourselves less chance to influence the direction of the city, and potentially get stuck with exactly the same situation we've currently got!". Well done Bristol. *slow claps*