CIC: Toying with elected Mayors

10:08 am - December 10th 2008

by Andrew Adams    

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All this week, Liberal Conspiracy will finish reviewing the Communities in Control White Paper launched by Hazel Blears recently.

The purpose of Chapter 5 is to outline “how people can hold officials to account through new powers of petitioning, and ways in which we will establish more visible and accountable local leaders by encouraging more powerful elected mayors”.

Their intention is to raise visibility of existing scrutiny functions, particularly Overview and Scrutiny Committees (OSCs), and encourage councils to consider new approaches to scrutiny. Ways this could be done include having large scale public forums or making committee meetings more accessible by moving them out of the town hall and into the community and having webcasts.

They also propose to enhance the powers of OSCs and introduce more scrutiny in county and unitary councils.

The visibility of local public officers will be raised so they are open to public scrutiny and questioning and there will be a right to petition them and require them to attend a public hearing, if for example people were unhappy with the way a local service or agency was operating.

Particular attention is paid to scrutiny of local policing and health services. Local people will play a part in deciding priorities for local policing and they will elect someone to represent their interests regarding crime and policing. There will be further proposals in the Policing Green Paper.

The document states that mechanisms have already been introduced to hold the NHS to account via Local Involvement Networks (LINks) and OSCs, and Primary Care Trusts will be encouraged to find ways of enhancing their accountability in ways most appropriate for the local area. There will be pilot schemes to expand the remit of LINks beyond health and social care issues. There is no specific mention though of making schools or education services more accountable.

The other main proposal is to encourage more elected mayors, the argument being that they provide more visible leadership, make it clearer who is responsible for local services and potentially engage more people in politics.

It will be easier for local people to demand an elected mayor by introducing on-line petitioning, lowering the threshold required to trigger a referendum and reducing the time in which a new referendum can be held after one is lost.

The assumption seems to be that people want elected mayors but the difficulty in getting a referendum is the major obstacle, despite the fact that outside London there have been 37 such referendums and there are only 12 elected mayors.

There is no real case made however for how, even if we accept the arguments for elected mayors, they relate to the main theme of this chapter, ie better mechanisms for people to hold their local representatives to account.

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Earlier reviews:
Chapter 1: Is the community empowerment plan any good? (Don Paskini)
Chapter 2: Can British citizens become active? (David Keen)
Chapter 3: Access to information (Justin McKeating)
Chapter 4: Are petitions the way forward? (Douglas Clark)

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About the author
This is a guest post. Andrew Adams is a fortysomething, leftish, and a West Ham supporter. He also works in banking, but despite these things, he's not totally disenchanted. He blogs at Mutantblog. Although unfortunately he is not a mutant.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,CIC paper ,e) Briefings ,Local Government ,Our democracy

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Reader comments

1. Mike Killingworth

Local Information Networks (LINks) in the Health Service are a sick joke. We used to have Community Health Councils, which although appointed not elected, were too effective as watchdogs for the government’s liking so it scrapped them; then there was something else whose name I forget and now we have LINks.

My experience of them is that their officers see their job as to meet the expectations of the people who pay them, i.e. the government – why wouldn’t they?

The assumption seems to be that people want elected mayors but the difficulty in getting a referendum is the major obstacle, despite the fact that outside London there have been 37 such referendums and there are only 12 elected mayors.

It also depends on <Iwhy they want them: have you looked at Stoke-on-Trent? Mike Wolfe organised a referendum; won it; got elected mayor; got thrown out four years later and replaced by a Labour candidate – only for the voters to scrap the elected Mayor in a referendum two months ago. London might be a special case because there was no city-wide authority once the GLC went. Labour’s pick and mix approach to English regional devolution and local government lacks a consistency and overall coherence.

The quote that you give in your first paragraoh (about the purpose of Chapter 5) has a number of non-sequiturs in it. It is far from clear that powerful, directly elected Mayors would be more accountable than at present. The Greater London Assembly, for example, has always said that it finds it difficult to hold the Mayor to account. The Assembly can ask questionsbut it cannot in any way sanction the Mayor if he/she does something wrong or prevent the Mayor from doing something. A more visible leader is not necessarily a more accountable one.

Indeed, they seem to take it as a given that an elected mayor = more accountability – there is no explanation as to why this is so.

I suspect that Hazel Blears (and possibly most politicians) don’t really know the meaning of the word “accountabilirty”. As you say, they take it as a given that elections = accountability. Unfortunately, as we all know, it is possible to win elections even if you get things very wrong, lie or are corrupt.

This chapter is really quite hilarious. It almost gives the impression that whoever wrote it was trying to avoid the term accountability – now why would they do that?

The assumption seems to be that people want elected mayors but the difficulty in getting a referendum is the major obstacle, despite the fact that outside London there have been 37 such referendums and there are only 12 elected mayors.

And one of the first places to get an elected mayor voted to get rid of the system in October. If I was still living in Torbay I’d be involved in the campaign to get rid of the one there as well, horribly unaccountable, the electoral system used meant he got elected on a tiny share of the overall vote and from what I’ve heard since I left the area it’s been one disaster after another.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find more towns with executive mayors getting rid of them, and any town considering it will have a good set of information from places like Stoke and Torbay for the no campaign to use.

Shame—if they’d done it right, then mayors could’ve been a useful addition to local democracy, but the way they’ve set them up pretty much gives them a carte blanche to do what they want for 4 years—more of the same would be a bad plan.

If you want people to be re engaged in local Govt, sorting the electoral system out so you get rid of safe wards and give everyone a spread of representation would be a damn fine way to start.

8. Mike Killingworth

[7] I don’t know what the electoral system is that “gets rid of” safe wards. If you mean STV, it’s perfectly possible to draw the boundaries so that there are lots of them – it’s just that the parties in contention both win seats – the Dail Eireann is a good example, as are many Scottish Council seats. Even with larger seats, say 6-member ones, only the last one or two come into play – the others are as safe as anything FPTP throws up.

Mike, depends what you mean by ‘safe’ I guess. I’m meaning it to define ‘one party state’. The ward where Jennie works, neighbouring where we live, is one of the longest held Liberal/Lib Dem wards in the country. All three Cllrs are Lib Dem, yet they only normally get 45% of the vote. Tories get 30%, and the rest are shared between ‘others’, Labout got just over 10% last time.

So of 3000 voters, only 1300 of them have a Cllr they voted for, and there’s very little chance of a change of party. There are other wards where it’s even more stark. We got 1200 votes in our ward last time, came within 80 votes of taking it, but none of the three Cllrs are Lib Dem. Labour and Tory voters in Elland have no one representing them, Lib Dems and Labour in Brighouse have no one either.

STV virrtually always means that there’ll be at least two parties with a seat, frequently more’n that. Sure, it might be that the same party always gets one seat, but if they want to contend, they would put up one more candidate, who could replace the incumbent. Thus no one individual is safe. Sure, each of the larger parties is pretty guaranteed to get a seat, but which candidate gets it is important, and the contended seats at the bottom of the count matter a lot.

You’d also both get rid almost completely of one-party statelets, and significantly reduce the BNP threat in areas like Dagenham—2nd in seats, but 3rd in vote share, 2nd place in vote share got zero seats across the council—can that be right?

Under STV, no incumbent is safe. Popular incumbents get reelected and perhaps are ‘safer’, but they need to keep that popularity.

10. Mike Killingworth

Mat, I can only suggest you examine how STV actually works in Scotland and both sides of the border in Ireland.

First, parties only run as many candidates as the number of seats they expect to win. The only exception to this is when they play identity politics and run an additional candidate from an ethnic or religious minority – such candidates do not and do not expect to win.

Second, the party tells the voters what order it wants its candidates placed in and most voters do as they’re told – I’d like to see an example of a STV election where candidates from a party were not elected in the order that party wanted them to be. Another factor here is that a significant proportion of voters won’t use all their choices, and not a few will only give a first choice (unless, like Australian Senate elections, you throw away all the votes which don’t rank all the candidates – I’m assuming you wouldn’t want that) so parties then get cute about candidate rankings to try to hoover up as many valid votes as they can.

I think that local Council elections in England and Wales should be run under STV (with “natural” ward boundaries returning between 3 and 5 councillors) but I am content to wait until we have had more experience of the system in Scotland. If the Audit Commission data, and such independent academic studies as will doubtless be undertaken, show that Scotland’s STV Councils by and large deliver more effectively (across a range of indicators) then we’ll have a strong basis for campaigning. I think there should be local referenda on STV versus FPTP as we have for elected Mayors.

It is because I support STV that I don’t want to see the waters muddied by making the wrong case. It is neither possible nor desirable to create an electoral system that makes every seat into a tight marginal – this is not the same as saying that each electoral division should not need to be closely fought, which is desirable. Except perhaps to the parties themselves, who no longer have the foot-soldiers to fight every ward in a local authority, if they ever did!

Ah, we’re talking at slightly cross purposes. I’m using seat to mean division as broadly speaking the two are used synonimously within UK politics. You’re correct to note they’re not the same.

but yes, I completely oppose compulsion in voting, and the Australian compulsory voting system is in my mind damaging—politicians should compete for votes and persuade people to vote, if they don’t it’s a political failure.

Parties will run enough candidates for the seats they think they can win within each division. If it’s an iterated series and they already hold one seat, it’d be politically bad for them not to put up two candidates, etc. I’m sure that some will do so (and I know that Labour ran scared in a few areas in Scotland for example), but then their opponents can point out how they don’t expect to do well there, etc.

That most voters do as they’re told may or may not be true (I’m sure there’s evidence supporting it, not doubting you there), but they do so through choice, and could choose not to.

Off the top of my head, one result where things didn’t go as the party said they should was West Tyrone last year:
(Sammymorse is a pseudonym for a prominent NI politico, his analysis is sound)

I agree completely with your penultimate paragraph, the only issue I have is that the true effects of STV will only come through after a series of elections, it’ll be only after the second term is over and the third set of elections that we’ll be able to really analyse any real difference. I’d prefer not to wait that long myself, and as I see STV for locals as a good first step (given pre-existing multi-member wards) to get people used to the idea for Westminster, waiting 15+ years isn’t a great plan.

As for party activists? Locally, the party members from the neighbouring two wards come campaign in my ward, as theirs are considered no-hope, I think in an ‘every vote actually counts’ election, we could likely get a few more people prepared to campaign as well as spread ourselves a bit more thinly. We’ll see though.

12. Mike Killingworth

[11] Yes, I’ve always been impressed by that website.

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