Chris White writes: The next local elections after May this year will be in November.

It is likely that a number of our cities will, by Government diktat, be holding referendums in May as to whether to move to a mayoral system. Some of these will give the go-ahead and Liverpool is anyway likely to jump straight to a mayoral system by use of a council resolution. The mayoral contests will be on the same day as those for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).

There are still some who, in relation to PCCs, are fondly imagining that Liberal Democrat candidates won’t be needed. This is despite the fact that it abundantly clear that the Conservative and Labour parties will be contesting these elections and despite the go ahead from the Federal Executive, overturning the English Party’s efforts to prohibit Lib Dem candidates.

The announcement of key mayoral contests makes abstentionism even more bizarre, but no doubt there will be some jungle fighters out there still in denial about whether a political party should contest political elections.

By Christmas massive budgets for policing and city services will, like it or not, be in the hands of single individuals, only loosely scrutinised by councillors. There is a danger that the Party may have made itself irrelevant not only failing to field candidates in some parts of the country but by having policies which are now dangerously out of date.

We know that we are opposed to elected mayors and PCCs. We should perhaps remain so. But we need to ask ourselves why we are opposed and what this means for the growing numbers of directly elected politicians.

Key questions now need to be asked:

  • how do we ensure that power is not concentrated to such a degree that corruption becomes possible?
  • how do we have democratically justifiable mechanisms for removing powers from those who misuse it or just fail?
  • how do we make sure that minority parties get a reasonable voice?
  • In what ways should we press for the strengthening of the astonishingly limited powers of Policing Panels to challenge the decisions of a PCC?
  • Should we insist that a Mayor’s Cabinet should be cross-party?

Meanwhile, what about the shires? The Government has done good work in preparing the devolution of important powers to cities and city regions.

But why should a county council, which might have a population of well over a million, not have similar powers? If that is the case is not time that we pressed for the first county mayors (or should we call them ‘sheriffs?’).

And in two tier areas how are district councils going to fit in? Do we still believe unitary authorities are preferable to the two-tier system when the most recent creations have seemed huge and remote? Does the city region model offer an alternative?

This may not seem to come up much on the doorstep. But it is a live agenda on which we need to provide new thinking.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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9 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 3rd Feb '12 - 5:06pm

    I agree we need to think about these things and we need to start from first principles not from the basis of “this is the trend so let’s get on board”.

    But first we must make sure that the party stands candidates in all these elections.

    Tony Greaves

  • Tony Dawson 3rd Feb '12 - 5:49pm

    I am aware of one police division where hell is likely to freeze over before Lib Dems even contemplate putting up a candidate for these police commissar elections. If there were a contemporanious mayoral election in the same area, and there were to be a Lib Dem candidate in this, one might, possibly (but only possibly) take a different view.

  • Steve Comer 4th Feb '12 - 12:19am

    May Mayoral referendums in the largest English cities will be conducted using the following questions:

    “Q. How would you like XXXXX City Council to be run?
    By a leader who is an elected councillor chosen by a vote of the other elected councillors. This is how the council is run now.
    OR
    By a mayor who is elected by voters. This would be change from how the council is run now.”

    Talk about a loaded question!…………
    If Alec Salmond had proposed such a wording in the Scottish governance referendum, the loud cry of ‘foul’ from the Westminster village could have been heard here in Bristol!
    How did our supposedly independent Electoral Commission approve a question that is deliberately worded to deliver the result Cameron and Clegg want?

  • Stephen Donnelly 4th Feb '12 - 1:41pm

    @Chris. “It is likely that a number of our cities will, by Government diktat, be holding referendums in May as to whether to move to a mayoral system”. A diktat is a harsh penalty or settlement imposed upon a defeated party by the victor, or a dogmatic decree; according to the Shorter Oxford. In contrast this seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable question put to the electorate by a democratically elected government. Presumably there is some enabling legislation that would need to pass through both houses, where the detail can be questioned ? @Steve. The question seems to be quite fair, to me.

    I am not sure that this form of local government would be inherantly inferior or superior to the present form. Both have strengths and weaknesses. So our position on the referendums is probably best left to the local level rather than a diktat by the national party.

  • @Stephen

    As things stand anywhere can choose to have a referendum on an elected Mayor by a petition of (I think 5% of the electorate).

    What is changing is that certain defined councils (set rather arbitrarily!) will have a referendum whether people want one or not. In West Yorkshire Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield will have referenda whilst Kirklees and Calderdale won’t.

  • Steve Comer 5th Feb '12 - 11:53am

    @ Stephen.
    Your dictionary is right a ” a dogmatic decree” is precisely what some major cities in England are facing.
    We HAVE to have a referendum on the basis of a loaded question. You are right that local parties will make their decision as to how to campaign, but given past record I expect most Lib Dems will not support changing to a Mayor.
    There is also a wider debate which is not being heard. Many of those advocate a Mayor talk about ‘strategic planning’, yet the cities are very different. Some (eg. Leeds and Bradford) encompass neighbouring towns and villages, others like Manchester or Bristol are smaller centres and the economic heart of a larger sub-region. There will be no debate on whether there should be a Mayor for the larger or the smaller unit, its the current boundary, whether logical or not.
    Meanwhile, Salford has just voted for a Mayor by a narrow majority on a turnout of 18%. Doncaster is due to vote on whether to get rid of theirs. At least they get the chance to decide whether they like the change they made a few years ago or not. (Stoke also changed to a Mayor then voted to get rid of it). Under the new legislation, if one of the cities votes for a Mayor this May they CANNOT reverse the decision later.
    I thought New Labour were control freaks when they brought in the 2000 Local Government act and imposed the choice between the Mayoral or Leader and Cabinet model, but at least there was an element of choice. By contrast, these referendums are more akin to the 1935 Saarland plebiscite than they are to any modern concept of democracy!

  • Chris White 6th Feb '12 - 9:02am

    No – we should not get on Board a trend (as it were). But equally we must not allow our policies to become irrelevant. It is perfectly possible that we will end up continuing to oppose directly elected mayors and PCCs. We need, however, to be comfortable that our reasons for doing so are still valid. And we need to be sure that even though we may oppose them we also have policies which acknowledge their existence and seek to mitigate their impacts.

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