The Saturday debate: Should we have more directly-elected Mayors?

Here’s your starter for ten in our Saturday slot where we throw up an idea or thought for debate…

Directly-elected Mayors were introduced by Labour to a very mixed reception. Now the idea is back again with the Government pushing for more, arguing that direct accountability of an individual makes for better decision-making and more meaningful democracy.

Agree? Disagree? Post your comments below…

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14 Comments

  • Let’s have directly elected dictators – we’ll know who’s responsible for every decision that’s taken, and none of this namby-pamby consultation and discussion business.

    Seriously, though, it shouldn’t be necessary to discuss this: it is only people like Blair and Cameron who have no understanding of or interest in local government who think that mayors are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

  • I live in Watford where we have had a directly elected mayor since 2002. I would offer the below observations.

    1) Dorothy Thornhill has neither been an effective or ineffective mayor. It is not clear at all what she has done or not done. Certainly any local issues are referred to the councilor not the mayor.

    2) The mayoral model has done nothing to invigorate local democracy. That is not to say that other model may have different effects, but the current model has not invigorated local democracy here.

    3) There is a bit of a concern that Thornhill has developed something of a US style personal political machine. She is very good at getting herself elected (largely through her appeal the the propertied crowd in the North of the town), but she doesn’t really do much visible for the local party or candidates. We had a Labour MP, and a Conservative since 2010, in no small part because of Ashcroft’s money. Thornhill did not really go and campaign hard for the party, just herself. Possibly there is nothing wrong with this, but I don’t think that mayors were supposed to be professional politicians.

    4) For nearly all of her time as mayor, Thornhill has had to work with a Lib Dem majority council, this has had the effect of not really separating the mayor and Council. No bad thing of course, but she could have had it much tougher. Arguably having is easy politically has meant that they mayor has not lead because there has been no political need.

    5) I’d agree with tonyhill in that it is not really clear what problems a mayor was supposed to solve and Thornhill has not really made any attempt to ‘lead.’ Back in 2002/03 there were lots of things and ideas being put forward, but the all really petered out. Again, it could be that this is no bad thing, but the mayor in Watford had not provided much of a local leadership role.The mayor

    6) We have an incredibly poor local newspaper here and the local press seem to think that ‘following the mayor’ is the same as ‘news.’ I suspect that there is a risk that the mayoralty could become a lightening rod int he event that the Council is of a different political party from the mayor.

    7) There is not really that much criticism of the mayor. Whilst this could be a sign of contentment, it could equally be a sign that her role is not doing a great deal above and beyond the old committee led council. As I said, it is not really clear what she has done and not done outside of the Town Hall.

    My own view – by all means go for an elected mayor, but it is honestly difficult to see any diffrerence before and after on the Labour model. I think that there are probably greater local issues than this. Quite how our friends in the Conservative Pary see mayors and the big society would be interesting.

  • Dave Warren 1st Jan '11 - 11:21am

    Not a priority for me either way.

    I would like to see voting reform for local government preferably STV
    much more important than elected Mayors.

  • Colin Green 1st Jan '11 - 11:47am

    What exactly is the advantage of electing a mayor directly, rather than the leader of the biggest party being the council’s leader? Could, perhaps, the same argument be used for the PM at Westminster?

  • Steve Comer 1st Jan '11 - 1:24pm

    The advantage of having a Mayor is two fold:
    1) It panders to the misconception that normal politics is the problem and some sort of ‘celebrity dictator’ is the solution
    2) The local press love it, it gives them endless copy, and photo-ops (Mayor cleaning graffiti, Mayor in a high vis jacket by a building site, Mayor with trowel in hand etc.). It also gives a chance for the classic “build ‘em up and knock ‘em down” lazy journalism.

    Apart from that its yet more concentration of power, like the Cabinet system, but more so.

    Those of us with referendums on Mayors in 2012 will need everyone in the party to come and help us secure a No vote in as many cities as possible. So far elected Mayors have been rejected in many places and Stoke-on-Trent even tried it and got rid of it. A victory for NO campaigns will help revive the Lib Dems at local level. But of course we’ve Oldham and the local elections to win in 2011!

  • We should certainly not have more directly elected mayors. At least not as Nick says there is substantial reform to the rest of local government so that there are sufficient checks and balances on an elected Mayor’s power.

    I think Colin also makes a fair comparison between this and how the PM is selected/elected

  • Dave Warren is right about the need for STV in local government, but it would be interesting to know from the experience of Scotland whether the introduction of greater plurality into one party fiefdoms has led to a perceived improvement in governance.

  • Peter1919 – Whilst instinctively I agree with you, this idea that is getting thrown about on here that elected mayors are, ‘dictators,’ simply is not reflected in reality in Watford or, as far as I am aware, any of the other areas with mayors. If anything I’s actually like the mayor here to be a bit more active outside of the Town Hall. My problem is not the possible centralisation of power, but that the mayoral arrangements have simply had no impact (positive or negative) on local government.

    Argument here has to be a bit more nuanced than shrieking, ‘dictator.’ Quite aside from that being lazy I’m not really sure that there is any evidence for it.

    It may, of course be that the elected mayor could be a political town hall manager and produce good government despite power being centralised to them. Is that really such a bad thing?

  • Ian Sanderson (RM3) 2nd Jan '11 - 10:08am

    @Dara
    ‘but I don’t think that mayors were supposed to be professional politicians.’
    Anybody, who supposed that would be wrong. Anyone who stands for election is a politician. Anyone who works as Leader or governing mayor of an area had better be professional in their attitudes to first get elected and then perform in office.
    I suspect the notion that elected governing mayors would be somehow different from previous leaders was a touchy-feely Blairite one, boosted by profound ignorance of local politics and an assumption that Westminster/Whitehall knows best.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jan '11 - 12:49am


    Whilst instinctively I agree with you, this idea that is getting thrown about on here that elected mayors are, ‘dictators,’ simply is not reflected in reality in Watford or, as far as I am aware, any of the other areas with mayors.

    Well, I would hope a Liberal Democrat elected to such a position would not behave as a dictator and would rather behave as a “constitutional monarch”. Nevertheless, the simple fact is that “elected dictator” is EXACTLY what a “directly elected mayor” is. The idea means taking away the power that is held collectively by the council and instead placing it all into the hands of one person. The national equivalent is if it were proposed that MPs should lose their right to have votes on policy and instead should be there just for a directly elected Leader of the Country to refer to for advice should he or she choose to do so. Would we stand for “A Bill to abolish the right of Members of Parliament to Vote”? No. So why is it so fashionable to propose that for local government?

    I happened to be Leader of the Opposition in the London Borough ofLewisham when the very New Labour council there wanted to be the first in the country to go for the Executive Mayor system, trying to get as close as they could to it witin the legislation that existed before Balir brought in the Act which allowed this to be done officially.

    I was APPALLED by the idea – to me it as so obviously a disgusting anti-democratic and plain evil idea – how could anyone seriously propose abolishing representative government and that not be greeted by outcry? Yet what was worse still was that no-one else seemed to be able to see this. Even the liberal press like the Guardian newspaper often runs “directly elected mayors” as another of those constitutional reforms which it assumes are good and says they are about “spreading power”. But how can anyone with any sanity claim that concentrating power that was once collectively held by a representative chamber into the hnads of one person was “spreading power”?

    New Labour LB Lewisham put this forward with trickery. They did not tell the people what it really meant. They used the device of a “Citizen’s Jury” to say “look the people agree with it”. By this they meant they got together some people – gave those people some lying propaganda about the idea, never told them what it really meant, and refused to allow me or anyone else opposed to the idea to address them.

    The sheer evil of the way I saw representative democracy so casually overturned with no-one else caring there turned my stomach, and turned me against the “great and the good” who wrote and continue to write articles in the press supporting the idea, and led me to see how much those who rule us and who run our media get what they want by telling us lies, and by mocking (as I was mocked in Lewisham for opposing the idea) those who dare stand up against what has been deemed by them “the way forward”. To this day, I have never seen one article in any newspaper against directly elected executive mayors. Yet it is, it really is, elected dictatorship. Why do we stand for this? Why do we not riot against the enemies of democracy who push this evil idea? If we allow it at local level, how long will it be before we allow it at national level? Like they did in Italy in 1922 and in Germany in 1933.

  • Jonathan Fryer 3rd Jan '11 - 3:24am

    In Tower Hamlets, moving to a directly-elected mayoral system has effectively let the Respect (evil) genie out of the bottle into which it had been stuffed at the general election last May,

  • Ed The Snapper 3rd Jan '11 - 8:30am

    No. It would end up being just another cushy job for a mouthy person from whichever party had the most money to get them elected. I do not think that a party political figure should represent a city (or a country for that matter).

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