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Lessons government must learn ahead of power devolution

Clare Holt, a Doctoral Researcher from Warwick Business School, was part of a team from the University of Warwick that looked at the role of elected mayors for a report commissioned and published in April 2012. As the recently elected Conservative government considers devolving powers to large cities that choose to have directly elected mayors, she considers some lessons the government can learn to make the policy a success.

Clare Holt

There is a movement in the capital, involving a group of citizens who have started a project which aims to crowd-source ideas for the next London Mayor. This is happening alongside discussions around the Chancellor’s promise of devolution to other cities that choose the elected mayoral model.

Set up by David Robinson, with the support of policy researcher Will Horwitz, the initiative is called Changing London and is fully coordinated by volunteers who live in the city. The idea behind the project is to invite Londoners to create their own vision for the city as a place to live. Over one thousand London citizens have so far put forward ideas which have been divided into five categories: children, neighbourhoods, inequality, democracy and health.

By using social media and constructing an online blog, Londoners were encouraged to submit their ideas in the form of solutions, not problems, focusing on the doable rather than the costly. Robinson believes that this ‘ground-up’ approach is a way to latch on to the ‘passion and creativity’ of those citizens who may not always wish to get involved with politics.

Building on from the Warwick Commission three years ago, my research has considered the work of Marshall Ganz (2010) and his writing around social movements to consider why people may or may not engage and participate in local politics. Ganz suggests the reason social movements engage individuals to come together and make a difference is linked with sharing a common purpose, creating emotion and ensuring people feel that they can have a voice to make a difference. Without this purpose, without passion and without an opportunity to be heard, people become complacent, apathetic and cannot see how they can make the status quo change.

It appears that a building of common purpose and creating a channel to have a voice is what Robinson and Howitz are attempting to do with Changing London; their recently published book of citizens’ ideas falls into the five visions, all of which are common and shared.

This passion and involvement amongst a population has recently been observed during the Scottish Referendum during the summer of 2014. It was evident that the emotion and passion being generated to have a voice and be a part of changing a whole nation’s future is what engaged the country to turn out and vote.

But why did this referendum engage the Scottish population to participate in such high numbers, when the two previous elected mayoral referendums (2002 and 2012) held in England were so poorly attended – with some turnouts as low as 18 per cent?

It has been suggested the Scottish referendum turnout and engagement was so high for three reasons. Firstly, Sargeson (2014) suggests it was because the Scottish citizens were being given an opportunity to influence the fate of Scotland, with their own futures in their own hands. Secondly, there was apparent risk involved with every vote actually making a difference due to the national consequences of the vote going either way. Finally, there was a rational decision being made by citizens due to the high cost of not voting being too great to ignore. A final point to make is also the voting age for this referendum; it was lowered from eighteen to sixteen therefore engaging a new audience, giving them an opportunity to be part of shaping their future. Reflecting on the results and the generational differences, 71 per cent of sixteen to seventeen year olds voted in favour of independence and 73 per cent of over sixty-fives voted no.

When I look back at my research for the commission, considering the first mayoral referendum in 2002, and the campaigns leading to the 2012 referendum in eleven of England’s largest cities, there was clearly confusion amongst the citizen as to what the role of an elected mayor would be. Despite the success of the London mayoral referendum in 1998, with a majority voting yes, the 2002 and 2012 referenda for elected mayors in other English towns and cities were disappointing to both governments who were in power at the time.

Politicians, councillors and local business leaders were all disagreeing with each other, with inter-political group differences at debates and press conferences becoming heated and at times confusing for the public. It was unclear how an elected mayor would differ from a council leader along with what ‘powers’ they may have to make a difference. The coalition government in the lead up to the 2012 referendum was not commenting or committing to anything regarding the devolvement of powers, with only one of the larger eleven cities voting yes to a mayor – Bristol. Liverpool decided to bypass a referendum in February 2012 with citizens voting for their first elected mayor in May 2012 – some spectators believe this was potentially encouraged by the prospect of £130m through a proposed ‘city deal’. Overall, out of all of England’s biggest cities, only four have elected mayors (Bristol, Leicester, Liverpool and London).

If devolution of powers is going to happen in England’s largest cities, there is a requirement that mistakes made during the previous two referenda on elected mayors (and the Police and Crime Commissioner referenda with some ballot boxes remaining empty!) are turned into opportunities for the citizens to represent their own common visions for their future. Any political or independent politicians who do find themselves campaigning to be an elected mayor and take on these promised devolved powers should consider the importance of engaging people through building passion, focusing on common purpose and listening to what people are saying, not just focusing on the party politics of an area.

Ganz, M. (2010). ‘Leading Change: Leadership, Organization, and Social Movements’, In N. Nohria and R. Khurana (eds.), Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: A Harvard Business School Centennial Colloquium. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.