Why Liberal Democrats should change their tune on elected mayors

There is something double-edged about being an elected mayor in the Liberal Democrats. At one level it has involved being a bit of a mini-celebrity within the party and I have been touched by the pleasure which colleagues across the country show in our success in Watford. Yet, I’m always aware that I hold a post that many Lib Dems believe should not exist and would strongly resist being adopted in their own area.

Liberals are rightly suspicious of the cult of personality and fearful of conferring too much power in one person’s hands. There may have been an element of self-interest too. Traditionally, Lib Dems built up their presence on councils by strict targeting, but could not hope to fight an election across a whole local authority area.

I want to suggest that colleagues should think again. For me, elected mayors are the key to achieving decentralisation of power – a Liberal goal that remains as elusive as ever, despite the government paying lip-service to the idea of localism.

What has struck me most forcefully about being elected mayor is the power of having a whole-borough mandate. It means that people have directly had a chance to vote for the political head of the council and are clear about who is accountable for decisions. One may be leader of a council, but mayor of a place – the very implication of the post implies being a champion for the community on all local issues, not just those directly run by the local authority.

Like it or not, local councils continue to have an image problem. They are easily caricatured as being run by seemingly anonymous committees with the public having little clear sense of who is in charge. MORI surveys show that less than 5 per cent of people claim they know much about local government. Centralisers in Whitehall and Westminster use the negative perceptions of local authorities to resist devolving powers to them.

By contrast, elected mayors have a clear mandate from an electorate on the same scale as (in some cases much larger than) a parliamentary constituency. They owe their power to the electorate as a whole, unlike council leaders who are chosen by their political group. Research by the New Local Government Network suggests that Mayors achieve vastly higher name recognition in their local authority area than do council leaders. In short, whereas central government may take a patronising view of local councillors, it is less easy to do so with elected mayors.

For me this is not just a case of championing the cause of elected mayors because I happen to be one. I believe that directly elected mayors with a stronger local mandate are the key to achieving the Liberal Democrat goal of a more decentralised political system. If we are serious about localism, we should drop our opposition to elected mayors.

And of course, outside London, we need not worry about being marginalised. In most of urban Britain, the Lib Dems would enter mayoral contests at very least as the challengers, if not as front-runners. Having elected mayors for Britain’s main towns and cities offers the twin advantages of making our political system more liberal and offering us an inviting electoral opportunity.

* Dorothy Thornhill is the directly-elected Liberal Democrat mayor of Watford.

Read more by .
This entry was posted in Local government and Op-eds.


  • I agree with Dorothy the ability for the public to understand who is accountable is a hugely powerful argument.
    However when Councils do get elected Mayors we must take the opportunity to reflect the reduced workloads for Councillors and cut the number and or renumeration.
    As a party we need to show we are not in it for ourselves.

  • Dorothy is rightly and genuinely liked and respected throughout the party, and it’s great to see her write on the dilemma she must face, holding a post the party does not really endorse.

    However, I’m not sure anything here really addresses the issue of centralising power in one “strong leader’s” hands. All of the arguments for mayors over council leaders could be used with regard to a directly-elected president rather than a prime minister. And I prefer the checks-and-balances of the old-style leader of a council. That’s not to say there isn’t much wrong with the current set-up, particularly the power of the current “executive boards”.

  • Grammar Police 27th May '08 - 10:23am

    I have to admit I’m not a fan of elected Mayors Dorothy (although happy you were elected in Watford), but have two quick points:
    1. With an elected Mayor, what do you see as the role of councillors? With a Mayor, even if the person making the decisions is more visible and accountable, this would seem to be at the expense of individual councillors.
    2. In areas where we can’t run a borough-wide campaign, the mayoral contest would depress our vote for the council elections (rather like in the London Mayoral election?) as everyone concentrates on the outcome of the Mayoral result. For those of us in such areas we’d be even less likely to be able to decentralise politics/make our area more liberal, as we’d be entrenching the Lab/Con duopoly.

  • Dorothy has done a great job for the people of Watford and for the credibility of elected mayors, but they are still not a good idea.

    Liberals instinctively oppose excessive concentrations of power. The only context in which elected mayors can be seen to decentralise power is the warped perspective of New Labour. The answer is surely to go the other way; rather than the excessive concentration of power under Mayor or for that matter Executive, why don’t we talk instead about handing power back to people in their communities and neighbourhoods?

    It was pretty clear in Reading that people knew who the leader was in May, as can be seen from the reaction when we won his seat!

  • What are the Lib Dems doing to battle against these Big Brother inspired carbon credits? The government will know absolutely everything about us if they’re introduced. They make ID cards look positively benign.

  • Most councils, especially Tory ones now have a so called ‘strong leaderhip’ model.

    It would seem that this effectively gives Mayoral powers to an individual, selected behind closed doors, rather than one who has been directly elected and has a true mandate, like Dorothy.

    I appreciate Gareth’s point about devolving powers to communities – the two are not necessarily contradictory. In a unitary authority there are decisions which must be made centrally and decisions which could and should be made locally.

    We must be able to square the circle, surely?

  • Gary Elsby stoke-on-trent 27th May '08 - 12:22pm

    I’m so sorry to intrude on this delightful debate but something written has slightly angered me.

    You see, I’m from Stoke-on-Trent and we (I) have an elected Mayor (a system denied to you).

    The very idea that you have a ‘clear mandate’ may be just a Watford thing, I really couldn’t comment other than to say, prove it. I’m sure the elected Mayor of Watford can do just that, it’s what mayors do.

    In my City, we have a system that no-one wants (not even the Government), we have a Mayor that no-one wants (not even Labour)and he has installed a cross party Cabinet that no-one wants (cross party) and has a set of policies that are totally despised by the whole City.

    Forgive me for intruding upon your ‘clear mandate’.

    Do I exaggearate?

    Find out for yourself.


  • Tony Greaves 27th May '08 - 12:53pm

    Gareth & Co are right. Of course we have to make the best we can of what systems we have and from what I can see LDs in Watford are doing just that. We all have to do it with the awful “executive arrangments” system of running Councils and that will get even worse when various provisions of the Local Governmenmt and Public Involvement in Health Act come into effect. (eg all power to the Leader).

    But we either believe in local democracy or we do not, and local democracy is or should be about elected councillors coming together as the legitimate local elected forum to involve people and solve problems in an open and democratic way, not just the “strong leadership” and the other barren concepts that this increasingly corporate-fascist Labour government is hung up on.

    Elected Mayors are essentially undemocratic and dangerous and if nothing else lead to the politics of personality not issues and beliefs (or even interests). I would have thought that the recent London contest was enough to put Liberals off the idea for a long time.

    Tony Greaves

  • Gary Elsby stoke-on-trent 27th May '08 - 12:58pm

    James, the Labour will always field a candidate in every contest, Mayors,Councillors and even a conker competition if the need arises. The notion of willingness is open to question and not our desire to win all political contests.

    It’s not a crime for Labour to win a Mayoral election in a City that is an inner City and sometimes even today called a Labour stronghold.

    Mayors are an experiment that can go wrong in a City with less than 500,000 and let’s cut this nonsense of toghness and direction fromthe front. Those terms equate to nothing less than a deviation of Democracy nicely wrapped up in ‘leadership’.

    Very soon Stoke will hold a referendum on our Mayor and my guess is that 99% (if he is lucky) will force the position to go. Yes it will be personal and yes it will be personal to any other party that has a similar delusion.

    Take it from me, my City is in uproar of a man who has literally Billions to spend and £200M to spend on schools.

    I want the referendum today because I know what the referendum will say soon enough.

    Go and go now and take your office with you.

    Do we want a Leader and Cabinet? How many fingers on your left hand would you like us to cut off?

    We want enhanced Comittees but we need to persuade our Government that we actually love democracy first.

    I really do take on board your questioning of a City that voted when asked to on anything put before us. The notion that we now agree is not in dispute.


  • But what has been done in Watford to decentralise power under and elected Mayor. I don’t know what the situation is, but any of those things could have been done equally easily under a leader and cabinet system where there was the political willpower to decentralise?

  • I have to say that I partially agree and partially disagree with the argument for directly-elected mayors.

    This is a democratic initiative which highlights the dual dilemma facing us, but it is not one to get dogmatic about as different communities in different areas have different circumstances and will naturally find different solutions more appropriate to resolve the diversity of issues which they face.

    I see no inconsistency in supporting or opposing directly elected mayors depending on the particular priorities where the question is proposed, though it will inevitably take time to iron out any growing pains and disagreements wherever discussion arises.

  • Please see discussion on Doncaster. If there is ever a genuine move to spread elected mayors more widely around the country, those of us totally against the idea will wave Donny in everyone’s face.

    Lib Dems in Donny are totally against the idea of an elected mayor, and do not even contest the elections in order to back an anti-mayor pro-referendum independent candidate.

    While Donny has been the extreme case, I do not see that their extension has added anything to democracy or effective local services anywhere.

    If there is an argument for one elected mayor, it would be London – even there the Lib Dems rightly campaigned for a “No” vote, and London would have got on no worse – and probably better without Ken or Boris!

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th May '08 - 1:20pm

    James Graham:

    If no-one wants the Stoke mayor, how come they voted for having elected mayors?

    I saw how this happened when I was a councillor in Lewisham and the system was introduced there. The arguments for are put in a vague and one-sided way “it’s modern”, “it means you have a direct say on who is the leader”, “it gives a visible face to the borough”. The argument against “It gives all power to one person” is not. Various local bigwigs are signed up to endorse it, some without really knowing what it means. The opposition to it is led by local councillors who can easily be written off as just acting out of self-interest to preserve their power.

    In Lewisham it was pushed through by the (very New) Labour Party, and for a long time I was just about the only person expressing public opposition to it. Shortly before the referendum Labour councillors were permitted to join the campaign against, and a few of them (mainly the old lefties) did. In the event, given the massive imbalance in campaign resources between the pro and anti sides, I was surprised by how narrowly it got through.

    Since then I have just had so many people approach me and say “If we knew what it really meant we would have voted against” (this both from people who voted for and people who didn’t vote in the referendum). This despite the fact that the Labour Mayor (apologies to the current LibDem group for putting it this way) hasn’t done anything outrageously wrong. People just don’t like the idea that he has the final say and can’t be outvoted. When contentious decisions are made, people don’t feel comfortable about them because of this.

  • Doesn’t the question of directly-elected mayors feed into the question of term-limits?

    With term-limits any such mayor is freed from any accountability until the next election, so in effect you instigate a dictatorship which is entirely dependent on the benevolent attitude of the office holder during the course of the period and their desire to seek re-election next time round.

    With the mandate for action direct elections provide it also diminishes the relevance of ordinary councillors and assembly members to virtual insignificance.

    My feeling is that directly-elected mayors should be held accountable in an adapted arrangement where they need to retain the confidence of the people who actively hold them to account.

  • Cllr Mark Morris 28th May '08 - 5:28pm

    Those that advocate executive mayors need to answer at least three questions:

    1. Why, if the Executive Mayor system is so wonderful, has the Government largely closed down the option of local residents being able to move away from an Executive Mayor system? Do they have no confidence in what local residents might think about an executive mayor system once it is in place? Are they afraid that people might not be happy with having an Executive Mayor in place? Why is the whole debate about executive mayors so one way? If people can trigger a referendum in favour of an executive Mayor system, why not the other way round?

    2. If Executive Mayors are indeed such a wonderful idea the principle should surely be extended to national politics as well? Why is it that the advocates of an Executive Mayor system for local government seem to have no enthusiasm for a directly elected head of executive for the UK? If Executive Mayhors are a good idea for a council, surely a directly PM makes sense as well? No one (other than the people of South Cardiff, Finchley, Huntington, Sedgefield) actually elected any of the UK’s Prime Ministers in the last 30 years. Moreover, three times in my lifetime (I am only 39 years of age!) the Prime Minister of this country has been selected by parliamentary colleagues between General Elections – put another way the leader of the largest political party elected on General Election day has been replaced by someone else.

    Depsite this taking place no one argues that we should move towards directly elected Executive Prime Ministers (or Presidents) for the UK.

    3. Why is that so many ballot results have been against introducing the system? If Executive Mayor system has worked so well why has the news not got out?

    In relation to Lewisham I must challenge the claims made by James Graham. The Mayoral referendum turnout in Lewisham was less than 20% of the electorate- there are low turnouts and then turnouts which are just shameful. The result was also incredibly close and the Electoral Commission criticised the conduct of the count. However, most significantly the resources of Lewisham Council were used in a quite inproper way to support the Yes vote. Council resources were used to support the general principle of an Executive Mayor through an expensive advertising campaign.

    It is not patronising to suggest that the people of Lewisham were misled or have a right to now decide whether they want to change the system that it is now in place.

    My final point is that as Liberal Democrats we should not be distracted by this issue. We have our own vision of local government, which includes a fair electoral system and a local income tax which could make local council tax bills far more reflective of local expenditure. By ending the heavy reliance on central government grants we would have a more transparent system of local council finance and end the harshness of ‘gearing’ when setting council tax bills.

    Cllr Mark Morris
    Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group, London Borough of Lewisham

    P.S. I hope the enclosed information provides a bit of background to the issues in Lewisham:

    A motion calling for a consultation on the future of the Mayoral system in Lewisham was voted down by Labour Councillors at an extraordinary meeting of the council last night.

    LibDems, Greens and Socialists all spoke in favour of the motion which recommended that “the people of Lewisham should now have the opportunity to consider whether an elected Mayor is the best method of delivering local government within the borough” and called for the council to start the statutory consulation process needed before a new referendum can be held in late 2007 or early 2008.

    Labour councillors voted down the motion by arguing that if the new Local Government and Public Involvement in Health bill becomes law, a consultation based on the current situation would be a waste of time and money. The BBD Campaign suspects that the real reason Labour councillors want to delay any consultation until after the new bill becomes law, is that the new bill introduces changes in the law which would prevent a further referendum being held in Lewisham until at least 2011.

    Press Release Details
    The motion introduced by Liberal Democrat councillor Mark Morris and seconded by Green Councillor Darren Johnson was as follows:

    “This Council notes that in October 2001 there was a referendum in Lewisham to consider the model of local government to be adopted in the Borough. The result was that 16,822 residents voted in favour of an elected Mayor and 15,914 voted against. The turnout was 18 per cent.

    Council believes that after five years of the current system the people of Lewisham should now have the opportunity to consider whether an Elected Mayor is the best method of delivering local government within the Borough.

    Council requests the Chief Executive to start the statutory consultation and to report back to the Council at the earliest opportunity on the outcome, so that the Council can consider whether to move to a referendum if the outcome of the consultation supports change.”

    Mark Morris said that “Executive Mayors have been an experiment. As with any experiment, they should be carefully monitored and evaluated.” He reminded councillors that Government Ministers were on the record in Hansard as having promised local people the opportunity to vote in a second referendum five years after the introduction of the experimental directly elected Mayoral system.

    In particular, he quoted Labour Government Minister, Lord Whitty who on 2nd March 2000 said

    “There is, of course, the possibility that local people could petition the council for such a referendum, but afterwards it should be for the authority to decide whether to act on such a petition. It will have to judge whether public opinion is such that it would be right to hold a referendum to change from mayoral executive arrangements to different systems, despite the relatively recent approval of existing arrangements on at least two occasions.

    Provided that five years had passed since the previous referendum, it would be open to an authority, be it a rural, urban, district or county authority, voluntarily to draw up proposals and hold a referendum to change from executive arrangements involving a mayor to different executive arrangements.”

    See Hansard

    He also quoted Labour Government Minister Hilary Armstrong who on 23rd March 2000 said

    “There is, of course, the possibility that local people could petition the council for a referendum to change the form of executive arrangements that the council is operating. Provided that five years have passed since the previous referendum, the authority will, of course, be able to act on such a petition.

    In addition, as long as five years have passed from the previous referendum, it would also be open to the authority voluntarily to draw up proposals and hold a referendum to change from executive arrangements involving a mayor to different executive arrangements. They will, of course, have to judge whether public opinion is such that it would be right to hold such a referendum, despite the approval their existing arrangements have had from local people on at least two occasions.”

    See Hansard

    He reminded the council chamber that the result of the referendum held in Lewisham in Oct 2001 was extremely close. The Yes vote was 16,822 (51%) and the No vote was 15,914 (49%) with turnout of only 18% this means only 9.2% of electors actually voted in favour of introducing the new system.

    He also argued that the original referendum was unsatisfactory and quoted the Electoral Commission report “Reinvigorating Local Democracy: Mayoral Elections in 2001”. On the issue of the large number of rejected ballot papers he quoted the Electoral Commission report which noted that

    “A large number of postal votes had to be rejected because electors had either not completed the declaration of identity at all or failed to get it witnessed.This caused particular concern in Watford, Hartlepool and Lewisham, where the number of ballot papers rejected was greater than the difference between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes.”

    He also referred to the fact that the count was not supervised by independent observers and again quoted the Electoral Commission report which states that

    “In Lewisham, representatives were concerned that the counting officer had not invited them to observe the adjudication of the doubtful ballot papers.”

    See Electoral Commission report

    He also quoted incumbent Mayor Steve Bullock who expressed disappointment in the October 2001 referendum. In an article written for the Unlock Democracy website Steve Bullock wrote

    “So in October 2001 we had a referendum and the result was ‘yes’ to an elected mayor. Despite this, the referendum itself was hugely disappointing. Turnout was barely twenty percent and the proposal was only passed by a narrow margin. There were a number of reasons for this. First, although there were yes and no campaigns, neither of them really took off. There were also some technical problems. The question was not phrased in the most helpful way and there were legal issues about how much information could be provided by the Council itself.

    See Steve Bullock article

    Green councillor Darren Johnson seconded the motion arguing that the current system concentrates too much power in the hands of one person and that the views of elected councillors can be ignored. He compared the current system in Lewisham to the system that would result if we were to abolish the House of Commons and replace the Prime Minister with an American style president.

    Socialist councillor Chris Flood argued that the new bill should not prevent a consultation process on the future of the directly elected Mayoral system in Lewisham and said that “if you think the system is so great then why not let local people have their say”.

    Liberal Democrat councillors Houghton, Feakes, Griesenbeck and Bennett also spoke in favour of the motion.

    Mark Morris predicted that “Tonight I expect we will witness the depressing sight of Labour councillors who have been whipped, and in some cases flown back from abroad, voting against allowing the people of Lewisham having a chance to have their say as to whether they agree with the experiment of an Executive Mayor.”

    He was proved right when the motion was rejected by 28 votes to 24.

    Bring Back Democracy petition organiser Nick Ingham said that “The Government is deliberately moving the goal posts. Despite Government Ministers promising that it would be possible to hold a new referendum after five years under the new system, the Government is now attempting to change the law to force us to wait ten years before a new referendum can be held. Meanwhile, they are trying to force all councils to adopt new models of governance which concentrate power into the hands of fewer and fewer people.”

    The BBD campaign is campaigning against several sections of the new bill especially Clause 33 (which allows an existing directly elected Mayor to veto a call for a referendum) and Clause 51 (which extends the time limit between referendums from five to ten years) and has already made a submission to the House of Commons.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th May '08 - 10:10am

    James, with respect, I was active in Lewisham when this happened, you were not. The unusual position in Lewisham, which is less the case in some other authorities which have had referendums on executive mayors, was that it was pushed through by the majority party in the council – which at that time was far more dominant than it is now. I did feel that the council pumped out very misleading information on what the system was, and the ONLY public opposition to it during much of the lead-up to the referendum was me – the only time the case against was put was when I managed to get a letter into the local newspapers about it (and they were pretty well pro-mayor as well, so that wasn’t easy). It was only close to the referendum, when Labour councillors were released from the party whip on this issue, that a more organised anti-mayor campaign was set up, and as Mark Morris has said, it didn’t really get going, so for many people the only thing they would have heard about the Mayor system was the council-produced propaganda for it. You can be quite sure that nowhere in this council produced propaganda was there any mention of the fact that it really did mean abolishing decision-making votes by councillors and instead instituting “one man, one vote”, that man being the Mayor. The material produced by the council in support of the mayor system during the time “consultation” was being held on it used just those vague terms about it being “modern” etc which I have outlined. It was not only my instinctive liberal feeling of dislike for the system that led me to take such a strong line against it, it was also anger at how the council propaganda system was being used to pump out misleading and illogical arguments for it with the case against just not being expressed.

    Now James, I am sure you know how authorities can use “public consultation” to get what they want if they are determined to have one particular position, and they know it’s not an issue which exercises most people greatly (as constitutional things aren’t). Glossy literature supposedly outlining the issues in a neutral way but actually outrageously biased to the position they first thought of are all part of the art. I am sure you know too how one-party states and dictatorships can use the tool of the referendum to give the impression of popular support. Lewisham at the time of the run-up to the mayoral referendum was almost a one-party Labour state – the massive advances of the Liberal Democrats in the borough leading to the current situation of a sizeable Liberal Democrat group as the main opposition took place later.

  • Tony Greaves 29th May '08 - 1:08pm

    Lots of stuff about Stoke on Trent in the press at the moment with the commission/investigation reporting and a long piece on the BNP in G2.

    An interesting quesiotgn is how far the local government mess in S-o-T has been caused made worse by having an elected
    Mayor (albeit the most bizarre of the options available which has now been abolished in the last LG Act).

    One problem with elected Mayors (amongst many) is that when things go wrong there are no mechanisms for sorting things out via the “normal processes of politics”.

    Tony Greaves

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th May '08 - 1:24pm

    Yes, I did over-estimate the effectiveness of the council’s propaganda, because I was surprised at the time how close the result was, I thought the Mayor system would easily get through. I have also been heartened by the rejection of the mayor system in many other authorities. I disagree with your suggestion that Lewisham people weren’t conned, however, because much supposedly neutral advice on the system did not fully spell out how it worked and in my view was biased in favour of its positive points. That people didn’t understand what they were being asked to support is shown by the shocked reaction of many when after the 2006 election Lewisham Council no longer had a Labour majority but decisions were still completely in the hands of the Labour mayor and not able to be voted down even by a united opposition, and a number of controversial decisions were made on just that basis. Now that could be put as a positive point of the system – quick decision making, no delay while a coalition is found to support it. But people haven’t liked it and enough have said to me “we didn’t realise that’s how it would work until now” to make it clear it only got through due to people who voted for it without fully knowing what they were voting for.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • John Barrett
    I have no doubt that some students work very hard, regardless of their exam results. Some work very hard at their studies and do well, some work equally har...
  • expats
    The privatisation had nothing to do with improvement for customers; it was based entirely on the flawed right wing dogma that 'If it doesn't make a profit it's ...
  • Peter Hirst
    Homo Sapiens has not even begun its spiritual evolution. Except in rare people, we still live in a materialistic, thought derived reality. It would be a shame i...
  • Joseph Bourke
    The so called 'agency problem' is not unique to natural monopolies like water services. It is a problem that exists in many public companies and even with areas...
  • Russell
    @ Martin Gray. Maybe not. And maybe we should let Putin march through Europe. By and large the west has decided Putin must be stopped. I happen to agree. There...