1) Time for a change or change for a time?
Whether it is the right time to change from a council leader system to an elected mayor system seems to depend upon the status quo. Where the electorate is relatively happy with the current situation – as they appear to be in Manchester and Wakefield – then switching to a mayor may not be appropriate. As Peter Box, Labour Leader of Wakefield Council, suggested, ‘Wakefield is the only district in West Yorkshire that has the stability of a leader in place for more than a decade – it’s about the job and what’s right for the city.’ He may well be right: in six years Wakefield went from one of the worst, to one of the best, councils.
However, where the status quo is deemed inappropriate then a mayoral system might well prove beneficial, both in terms of offering a change that might, in itself, improve the system, and equally important in offering a way of diluting the centralised nature of political life and enhancing the status of the locale at the expense of the centre. This may
also mean enhancing the powers of the mayors and increasing the political footprint to match the economic footprint of decision making in many places – the so-called Metro Mayor option. It might also be the case that a mayoral option is a temporary change rather than a permanent shift: it might be a change for a time rather than just time for a change.
2) The call of the Centaur – or the Saviour?
In times of crisis it is common for societies to look towards charismatic leaders – saviours – to resolve the Wicked Problems that bedevil everyone but, as the author of the charismatic literature that began this debate – Weber – suggested, seeking out a charismatic can be a poisoned chalice if the leader comes to believe that he or she is ‘the chosen one’, rather than ‘the temporarily elected one’. The mayoral option does seem to create both the advantages and disadvantages of charismatic leadership – the ability to instil a level of enthusiasm amongst voters than can mobilise a hitherto apathetic electorate – but also the danger that choosing the wrong person could leave a city with a significant short term problem.
The Centaur may offer a more sophisticated and sensible option for voters to choose but such are the expectations of many that no elected mayor is going to be able to deliver the miracles that are required of the incumbent. It may be, then, that a large effort to educate the electorate about the limits and possibilities of local politics is required, and that an even greater effort is necessary to mobilise that same electorate to address its own problems: to take responsibility rather than deflect it back upon the mayor or the council leader. This also requires a mature debate about the indicators of success by which we can evaluate the performance of mayors. Unless mayors are unlike every other kind of organisational leader then it will prove very difficult to establish a series of objective metrics to hold them to account: there are usually just too many variables involved to apportion responsibility accurately – including the difficulty of assessing what time period we should judge to be useful. Boris Johnson’s successful 2008 campaign for London Mayor promised to ‘make London the greenest city in the world...to make our streets safer...to get Londoners moving [by resolving the industrial relations problems with the tube drivers]... to put the smile back on London’s face.’ But after the worst riots in 30 years, more tube strikes than under Ken Livingstone (his predecessor), and poor air quality it is difficult to conclude that he has succeeded. Yet, as Beckett (2012:6) notes, London doesn’t feel like it’s in decline at all, perhaps because many of the major projects begun under Livingstone are now coming to fruition (Crossrail, Thameslink, St Pancras and the Olympics). Or as Chou En Lai once allegedly said in response to a question about the impact of the French Revolution on Western civilisation – ‘after just two hundred years it was too early to tell.’ We may just have to revert to the lodestone of democracy and trust the public to judge, four years on, whether the alternative system worked and who the best person might be.
3) The best system or the least worst system?
Many of the arguments from both the No and the Yes campaigns seem to be locked into a dystopian or utopian vision: either the current system is perfect or the alternative is perfect. This binary approach allows both extremes to trade insults on the basis of precious little empirical evidence: Stoke failed and Doncaster has been close to failure – so clearly the whole
mayoral model is flawed or, alternatively, the evidence from Auckland, Calgary and Leicester self-evidently points to the unbounded advantages of directly elected mayors. In reality neither side seems to have a compelling case for or against but our evidence suggests that elected mayors offer a real opportunity for change in a place where change is needed and
also a way of invigorating a body politic that seems to look more like a nautilus than the vigorous and committed body of leaders and voters that once turned the Victorian slums that shamed us into the Victorian cities that the world envied. In this sense the mayoral system might not be the best system but it might be better than the current system in some places; it might be the least worst.
4) Short term adjustment or long term transformation?
For some participants in the debates the mayoral option offers the hope of a radical transformation, but without falling back into scepticism it is worth recalling the significant constraints on local control, either because of the central control from Whitehall or simply because no individual actor can bend the system to his or her will. In an era of globalisation many of the forces at work are probably beyond anyone’s direct control so the question is not ‘can mayors transform the local world’ but ‘can mayors make a significant difference given the constraints they face’? The answer seems to depend upon the individual incumbent, hence the importance of choosing wisely, but also on the team that surrounds and supports the team. Here the analogy might be what Graham K Wilson calls ‘the gearbox’ problem: how does the leader connect to the
political engine that drives the machine – except through a ‘gearbox’ full of staff that may help but also hinder the development and execution of policies. Or to use a different analogy, does the ‘court’ of the mayor end up
isolating the leader from the citizens in the same way that courtiers have historically done with monarchs across the ages? Certainly mayors like Tony Eggington (Independent Mayor of Mansfield) likened conventional politics to this: ‘Politicians have built their kingdom. They are parochial and protective of the egos and the empires they have built.’
5) Trusting the people: you get the leaders you deserve
While the council leader system functions through indirect democracy and requires the councillors to elect the leader, the mayoral system functions through direct democracy and requires the population to elect the leader. The former system attributes greater responsibility to the council on the grounds of their greater expertise and knowledge of the system, the requirements and the person. The latter system attributes responsibility directly to the electorate – and this requires a high level of trust in the ability of the public to differentiate between better or worse candidates and between charlatans and worthies. In many ways it reproduces debates from Ancient Greece: do we side with Plato and simply distrust any voting system that involves the voters or ‘the mob’ as he termed them, or should we side with Aristotle and suggest that democracy might be a useful element in a system of governance? Or, as Stuart Drummond (Independent Mayor of Hartlepool) puts it rather more robustly: ‘Politicians underestimate the public. The public are notdaft!’ Mark Bentley, communications officer at Leicester City, put it similarly when reflecting on Sir Peter Soulsby, ‘Under the cabinet model the leader is chosen by the elite in a back room somewhere, but now for the first time the public have voted for who they wanted – Peter. This has had a huge effect on the local media because it is difficult for them to be overtly critical of a politician who has support of core readership.
Precisely which form of democracy is most useful – direct or indirect – depends upon the status quo but one thing seems clear: you get the leaders you deserve and leaders get the followers they deserve too. ‘At the end of the day’, suggested Julie Hardaker, Mayor of Hamilton City Council, New Zealand, ‘if the public wants that person, then so be it. It is up to the public to decide.’ Perhaps more importantly we should finish on why all this matters? What is the purpose of electing mayors and underlying this is a more critical question: what is the purpose of politics? If politics is about how we mediate our individual and collective conflicts then we had better pay some attention to reinvigorating the bodypolitic: politics is too important to be left to politicians.