Elected Mayors – where did it all go wrong?

May 4, 2012

The idea that elected Mayors will be the genesis for the transformation of major cities looks in pretty bad shape today.  All of the cities to have declared so far have voted No.  I’ve made clear that I support the idea of elected Mayors as they decentralise power, provide a big figure to stand up for cities in the North and Midlands and help shake up sclerotic  and anonymous civic leadership.  But it’s obvious that the reform once trumpeted as a once in a generation devolution of power has hit the rocks.  The campaign has been shambolic and it’s time to ask where it all went wrong for elected Mayors.

1. The campaign for elected Mayors was too little, too late.

Supporters of elected Mayors (particularly those supporters who were based in London) seemed to think that a Yes campaign would just happen.  There was a real sense of complacency about the campaign.  At a dinner in London last week, some people expressed amazement when I predicted that a series of No votes were a distinct possibility. Ironically, the Westminster bubble, which elected Mayors were supposed to be puncturing, didn’t realise that people outside of London weren’t as enamoured to the idea of elected Mayors as they were supposed to be.

The campaigns failed to build a compelling vision of what an elected Mayor would do for cities and regions and failed to build any sense of excitement about the idea.  Early complacency ignored the fact that party machines in big cities were always going to be reluctant to lose their grip on power and last minute speeches by Westminster based politicians were never going to make the difference.    Nor was an attempt to sell the idea of elected Mayors to the North with an appeal for a “Boris in each city.” The early complacency has been punished with a series of No votes.

2. Elected Mayors were seen as ‘more politics’ not ‘anti politics’

One of the most compelling arguments for elected Mayors is that they will pass power from the hands of a handful of politicians and transfer it to the people.  It would weaken the party machines and give more a chance to independent minded candidates.  At a time of anger with politicians at all levels and a rising mood of anti politics, such a message could have fed into the anti politics narrative.  Instead, elected Mayors were successfully portrayed by opponents as an attempt to create more politicians.  The Yes campaign didn’t learn at all from the rejection of regional assemblies a few years ago and didn’t effectively tackle public opposition to creating “another layer of politicians.”  Rather than portraying the referenda on elected Mayors as a potential to make a protest vote against the political establishment, elected Mayors became perceived as a part of the establishment they were supposed to shake up.

3. A broad coalition of supporters wasn’t assembled in time

At the last minute, the campaign in Newcastle made clear that it had the support of a big hitter in David Miliband and a successful local businessman in Sir John Hall. It was, of course, too late in the day to make any kind of difference. The Yes campaign needed a broad, high profile, cross party coalition of supporters from an early stage – this kind of coalition was never really assembled.  The Yes campaign would have been much more successful if it promoted businessmen, community leaders, trade unionists and other major local figures as the face of the campaign rather than politicians.  In failing to build a broad coalition, the Yes campaigns sowed the seeds for their defeat.

4. There wasn’t enough effort to cultivate or create interest in the local media

The local media in some of the cities where a referendum was being held behaved as though a vote wasn’t even happening. In many cities, the referendum was a non event – hardly discussed locally, barely mentioned on regional news programmes and getting next to no prominence in regional newspapers.  The job of the campaign should have been to build a sense of excitement around proposed reforms – making it the big talking point of the regional media and ensuring that the case for change was heard on a daily basis.  The campaign failed to generate that and the turnout for each referendum was very small.

5. The boundaries and powers were ill thought through

In making the case for elected Mayors, David Cameron talked about having a “Boris in every city.” However, in truth, the attempt at devolution was fairly half hearted.  The powers proposed for elected Mayors weren’t comparable with the power that the Mayor of London has.  And whereas the Mayor of London is a spokesman for a Mayor who crosses local authority boundaries, the proposed elected Mayors were pretty parochial in scale.  Take Newcastle as an example.  It would surely have been sensible for the Mayor to cover Newcastle-Gateshead at least, rather than just Newcastle.  Restricting the proposed Mayors to such small boundaries made it more difficult to argue that elected Mayors would benefit whole regions.

By being unambitious and half-hearted, the proposals for elected Mayors completely failed to capture the public imagination.  The Yes campaign was complacent and lackadaisical until the very last moment.  The political establishment was in Northern cities was keen to hang on to the cosy status quo. The sadness is that the failure of the elected Mayoral scheme, if handled with more energy and imagination, could have been a real opportunity to boost Northern cities.

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