There are many signs that British democracy is in a worse state than it has been for some time. Following the expenses scandal and the revelations about overly close links between politicians and the media, levels of trust in politicians and the political process have fallen. Voter turnout has been on a downward trend in general elections for some time, quite apart from serious problems with voter registration, not least in Bradford. Turnout in local elections is well below the average for an advanced industrial democracy. Citizens have become disengaged and that is not good for democracy.
At the debate on elected mayors held in Bradford last night, I heard about some of the challenges that Bradford is facing. People are upset about the decline of the city centre and when I saw the large hole which is supposed to contain a retail park this morning I could see what a blot it was. The whole country faces challenges of youth unemployment, but these are particularly serious in Bradford. There are also problems of higher than average rates of child mortality and lower than average levels of educational attainment. Often these problems particularly affect BME groups.
Considerable efforts have been made to regenerate the city and to build links between different communities. Nevertheless, the uncomfortable truth is that Bradford has been eclipsed by the city of Leeds when it was once the more prosperous city.
I am not pretending that there are easy solutions to these problems. It is very difficult to force a developer who thinks a project is not viable to undertake it, particularly during a recession. As we heard last night, there are many good, hard-working councillors in Bradford who give up their time for public service. Faith groups are also evidently making an important contribution.
Political parties form an important function in a democracy in terms of mediating between decision-makers and the people. A good political party should listen to what the people want and then build into a coherent and feasible programme.
I am concerned, however, that the mainstream political parties do not fully appreciate the extent of the crisis that faces them and the need to renew and reengage with the electorate if they are to survive and flourish. We all like the familiar status quo, but sometimes it needs to change.
As I emphasised last night, I and The Warwick Commission on Elected Mayors and City Leadership are not advocates for elected mayors. It may be the right forward for some cities and not for others. It is certainly not a panacea. There are serious objections to the idea. It has also has to be recognised, as I think most panellists agreed last night, that we have a system of government in England that is far too centralised and does not give local government the autonomy and the resources it needs to tackle the problems it faces.
Nevertheless, I do not think that elected mayors are just a gimmick to divert attention from other issues and they do deserve serious consideration.