How should you run a local council?

Posted on April 30, 2012 at 11:21 am,

On Thurdsay, Coventry (where I live) is one of ten local councils who will have referendums on the question of whether to replace the current system where elected councillors run the council with one where a directly elected mayor does. Like almost any change to the system, there are advantages and disadvantages to this. I thought I’d outline some of the major issues in this debate. If you’re in one of those cities, you might find this helpful.

Democracy and accountability

Supporters of elected mayors claim that they are more accountable than councillors. They base this on the claim that most people will know who the mayor is, whereas they don’t know who the leaders of the council are under existing systems. On the other hand, a directly elected mayor can only be held accountable every four years at election time. Councillors would be able to override his (or, in theory, her*) budget with a two thirds majority, but would not be able to hold him to account on anything else. By contrast, the current system allows councillors to hold the council leader to account at any point. And he or she can be replaced quite easily if things go pear-shaped. And if the electorate changes their mind about which party they want in charge, all of the councils with such referendums elect their councillors by thirds – there is an election almost every year. Furthermore, having decisions made by a group of councillors who represent different parties and political philosophies is probably more democratic than having them made by a single person and his hand-picked cabinet.

Policy vs Personality

Although the Mayor of London is not directly comparable to elected mayors in other UK cities (his role is as regional government, rather than being the head of a council), it demonstrates one of the dangers of a mayoral system. Even a casual look at the current Mayoral election campaign in London shows that it has become primarily the Boris and Ken show. Policy issues that affect the lives of ordinary Londoners have been sidelined in favour of the personality of the two leading contenders. Whilst council elections often get sidetracked from discussing real issues of policy, this rarely happens because of big personality clashes, and the kind of egos apparent in London. When the personalities are not centre stage, it is a lot easier to discuss the substance.

Being Effective

One major claim of yes campaigners is that a mayoral system is simply better at getting things done for the city. This, of course, depends entirely on who is elected. If you get a good mayor, who makes good decisions and makes very few mistakes, this is probably true. But if you get a bad mayor, there is no way of recovering until his term is up. And it’s not as if councils run by councillors have not been able to get things done. Coventry was perfectly able to rebuild itself after the war without having an elected mayor.

Apolitical?

Yes campaigners argue that, with a directly elected mayor, you can get somebody who is outside of the normal political parties elected. An independent, they argue, can get things done that politicians might not. And they claim that he could make up his cabinet from the best members of all political parties. This argument strikes me as being somewhat naive. In an election across a large town or city you need a party machine of some kind to get elected. Very well known people might be able to buck the trend occasionally, but independents face enormous problems being taken seriously. And even when people outside the major parties get elected, they will often be partisan. In Doncaster, a member of the English Democrats got elected as mayor. He took his cabinet from all parties on the council except Labour. Who had a majority of councillors. Doncaster is now having a referendum on getting rid of the mayoral system. You might get apolitical mayors in countries where local government is traditionally apolitical, but in the UK – where local politics is entirely dominated by national political parties – it simply isn’t going to happen.

Whilst I don’t see that either way of running councils is necessarily better in principle, I don’t see any evidence that elected mayors will improve an area, I think that they are less democratic than the system which they would be replacing, and there is a greater danger of things going badly wrong with the new system.

*I say “in theory”, because it seems very unlikely – at least here in Coventry – that a female candidate would win the election.

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