Confessions of a Political Animal

November 27, 2008

How fare the elected mayors?

One of the Labour government’s big ideas for the reform of local government was the introduction of directly-elected mayors across the country. But rather than a great firework of reform, the whole idea seems to have turned out to be something of a damp squib. There is, of course, one well known example in London, but that doesn’t really count – the Mayor-led Greater London Authority set up is unique to the capital and represents regional rather than local government. The Mayor of London’s powers resemble more those of, say, the First Minister of Wales than the local government version.

But what of the rest of the country? The powers for local authorities to hold referendums on an elected Mayor-led system was included in the Local Government Act 2000. Since then, just 37 local authorities in England and Wales have held referendums, and the verdict from these has not been overwhelming: only 12 resulted in ‘yes’ votes. The 25 other referendums saw the concept rejected by, on average, almost 63% of the voters who bothered to turn out (normally very few – the referendums in Sunderland and Ealing saw turnouts of just 10%, with only 11% in Southwark). And yet the idea seems to refuse to die, with perhaps the un-typical London example of a successful mayoralty acting as a spur. Bury held a referendum this year, with the perhaps inevitable ‘no’ vote. And last year, even as the party was engaged in what then looked like a fruitless search for a London mayoral candidate, the Conservatives published a report by Lord Heseltine calling for the introduction of directly-elected big city mayors, a reversal of their previous opposition to the concept. However, in a move in the opposite direction, Stoke-on-Trent last month became the first area with a mayor to subsequently vote to abolish the position in a referendum.

So what of the existing 12 mayors? One of the interesting things to note is exactly wherethey exist. I suspect that when ministers where drafting this legislation, the local government arrangements in Torbay probably weren’t uppermost in their minds. Rather, the targets were expected to be the big cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds. Yet not one such authority has even held a referendum, let alone actually adopted a mayor. Certainly a number of medium size regional cities, such as Stoke-on-Trent, Darlington, Doncaster and Brighton have held referendums – some even voted for mayors – but the big metropolitan areas have been remarkably resistant.

And the mayors that have been elected really don’t conform to the traditional English political system of a strict three party hegemony, as the table below of current mayor’s party affiliations shows:

Conservative  1 (+ London)
Labour  5
Liberal Democrat  1
Independent  5

For a country where independent politicians are normally limited to running minor rural councils, to have more than a third of the nation’s directly elected mayors as non-party candidates is quite a turn-up. Of course, to this number we should add Ken Livingstone’s first term as London Mayor. Given the slightly odd phenomena that have arisen from the directly-elected mayor experiment, I thought it might be worth examining the ‘story so far’ of the 12 local authorities that have gone down this road, including whether the advent of a mayor has boosted the areas Audit Commission’s Comprehensive Performance Assemsment performance (discussed previously in this post).

Bedford Mayor: Frank Branston (Ind). Bedford voted for a mayoral system by a 67%-33% margin in 2002, with local newspaper owner Branston taking the position later that year on an independent Better Bedford ticket. In 2002, a Liberal Democrat candidate was second placed, whilst in 2007 he was re-electedwith a 6,000 majority over the Conservative candidate. From April 2009, Bedford Borough Council will become a unitary authority, delivering all council services, thus heavily increasing the importance of the Mayoral position. It will be interesting to see if this influences the electorate into a more party political choice of mayor in 2011. 2003 CPA assessment: Good 2007 CPA assessment: Excellent

Doncaster Mayor: Martin Winter (Ind). In a 2001 referendum Doncaster voted by a 65%-35% margin for an elected mayor, perhaps partially in the hope that the position would help Doncaster’s local politics move on from the era of the notoriously corrupt Labour council of ‘Donnygate’ fame. It certainly hasn’t succeeded in making the town’s local politics any more understandable for outsiders. Winter was elected in 2002 as the Labour candidate, and was reasonably comfortably re-elected as such in 2005, with an independent candidate in second place. However, after mediocre local election results for Labour in 2008, Winter announced he would serve as an independent for the rest of his term and was expelled from the party: his cabinet now consists of independent and Community Group councillors. Winter has been the subject of eleven Standards Board complaints: in each case he has been cleared of wrongdoing. Interestingly, the full council has voted both to hold a new referendum on the mayoral position and passed a vote of no confidence in Winter. Neither vote appears to have been acted upon. 2002 CPA assessment: Fair 2007 CPA assessment 3* (equivelent to Good), not improving adequately.

Hackney Mayor: Jules Pipe (Lab). Hackney, a notoriously difficult to govern borough, voted 59%-41% for an elected mayor in May 2002, making it the third London borough to do so. Jules Pipe, the existing Labour leader of the council, was elected as Mayor later in the year, and subsequently comfortably re-elected in 2006 taking 73% of the vote in the run-off round over the Conservative candidate. With a Labour majority on the council, Pipe has been able to form a single-party cabinet. 2002 CPA assessment: Poor 2007 CPA assessment 3* (equivelent to Good), improving strongly.

Hartlepool Mayor: Stuart Drummond (Ind). Ah, the famous monkey mayor. The narrow election of Stuart Drummond, Hartlepool United’s mascot, as Mayor in 2002 was one of the first indicators that all was not going to go smoothly with the directly elected mayor project. The ‘yes’ vote in the referendum was carried by less than 400 votes and the following election was almost as tight, with Drummond defeating the Labour candidate by just over 600 votes. Despite the unpromising nature of the victor, he has at least been electorally successful, winning re-electionin 2005 with a run-off majority of over 10,000 over Labour. And this apparently without delivering on the bananas in schools promise. Despite his anti-Labour stance in elections, Drummond’s cabinet consists of 4 Labour and 2 Independent councillors. 2002 CPA assesment: Excellent 2007 CPA assessment: 4* (equivelent to Excellent), improving strongly.

Lewisham Mayor: Sir Steve Bullock (Lab). Lewisham was the first London borough to hold a referendum on an elected Mayor (in October 2001), approving the concept by a margin of under 900 votes on an 18% turnout. Bullock was formerly a GLC policy advisor and had previously served as leader of Lewisham Council, but stood down in 1998. He was elected as mayor in 2002 and re-elected in 2006 with 57% of the vote in the run-off round against the Lib Dem candidate. Despite Labour being in the position of minority largest council on the borough council, Bullock’s cabinet is comprised entirely of Labour councillors. Of course, from the Animal’s point of view, Bullock’s most important act to date is to save the Blackheath fireworks, but Lewisham’s residents may have some other suggestions. 2002 CPA assessment: Good 2007 CPA assessment: 4* (equivelent to Excellent), improving well.

Mansfield Mayor: Tony Egginton(Ind). Mansfield voted for an elected mayor by a 55%-45% margin in May 2002. In October of that year, the town’s voters rejected the major parties to elect former newsagent and independent candidate Tony Egginton. He was re-elected in 2007, clearly beating the Labour candidate Alan Meale, who as the town’s sitting MP took the very unusual step of standing for the mayoral position (only Ken Livingstone, Simon Hughes, Boris Johnson and George Stevenson have done likewise). Mansfield’s mayoral politics appear to have become tightly interwoven with the issue of the governance of struggling Mansfield Town FC. In March 2008, Eggington became non-executive chairman of the club. 2003 CPA assessment: Weak 2007 CPA assessment: Good.

Middlesbrough Mayor: Ray Mallon (Ind). One of the largest authorities to go for the elected mayor model, Middlesbrough voted overwhelmingly (84%-16%) ‘yes’ in its referendum in October 2001- probably in part because local people had a clear idea who they wanted for Mayor. Former Detective Superintendent Ray Mallon, the controversial ‘Robo-cop’ and purveyor of zero-tolerance policing was elected as an independent with 64% of the vote, avoiding the run-off that almost every other mayor has required. It is believed that he has since been courted by both Labour and the Conservatives, but has remained as an independent, winning another first-preference vote victoryin 2007 with 58.5% of the vote. Mallon’s Executive is composed of 8 Labour and 1 independent councillor, reflecting the Labour majority in the council chamber. 2002 CPA assessment: Good 2007 CPA assessment: 4* (equivalent to Excellent), improving strongly.

Newham Mayor: Sir Robin Wales (Lab). Newham vote heavily in favour of an elected mayor in its January 2002 referendum, by a 68%-32% margin. Wales had been leader of the heavily Labour borough for seven years prior to his election as mayor in 2002. He easily won re-election in 2006, taking 68% of the vote in the run-off round against the Respect candidate. Wales is seen as the most New Labour of the Labour elected mayors, allowing Simon Milton to announce that there was no real ideological difference between how Westminster and Newham ran their councils. His erstwhile Parks Police force has made regular appearances in Private Eye‘s ‘Rotten Boroughs’ column for overstepping the mark in regards to their powers. 2002 CPA assessment: Fair 2007 CPA assessment: 3* (equivalent to Good), improving adequately.

North Tyneside Mayor: John Harrison (Lab). North Tyneside voted by 58%-42% in favour of an elected mayor in October 2001. It is perhaps the most unlikely of the areas to have voted for a mayor, being made up of a multi-centred urban area, rather than the distinct towns with firm identities that account for most of the other non-London mayoralties. Other district rather than town-based areas that have held referendums tend to have rejected the proposals overwhelmingly (Sedgefield, West Devon and Ceredigion are good examples). North Tyneside is also the only authority to be on to its third directly elected mayor. In its first election, in 2002, Conservative Chris Morgan was elected, but resigned just eleven months later after being charged with child pornography offences. In what is, to date, the only mayoral by-election, he was replaced by the Conservative’s deputy group leader Linda Arkley (one of only two female mayors to date), who served to the end of the mayoral term in 2005. She was then defeated by a margin of just 102 votes in the run-off by the Labour candidate John Harrison (Arkley had come top on first preferences). Despite there being (since 2008) a Conservative majority in the council chamber, Harrison’s cabinet is composed entirely of Labour councillors. 2002 CPA assessment: Poor 2007 CPA assessment: 3* (equivalent to Good), improving strongly,

Stoke-on-Trent Mayor: Mark Meredith (Lab). Stoke voted by a 58%-42% margin to introduce an elected mayor in 2002, with the first elections seeing the election of independent Mike Wolfe, a former Labour member and local Citizens’ Advice Bureau manager. He narrowly defeated George Stevenson, then sitting Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South. In 2005 elections, Wolfe was heavily defeated, falling to third place behind the Labour and Conservative candidates, only narrowly beating the BNP candidate. Labour’s Mark Meredith, a local businessman with no previous electoral experience, easily defeated the Conservative on second preferences. However, the 7,126 spoilt papers were seen as being a sign of severe voter dissatisfaction with the mayoral system. With highly dysfunctional politics within Stoke’s council, which has shifted from being a one-party Labour state to being deep in no overall control territory with a strong BNP presence, it seems to have become increasingly clear that the mayoral system was not functioning effectively. Since 2007, Meredith has run a de facto executive and cabinet model, with a Lab-Con-Lib Dem executive. Following the government’s withdrawal of the option of Stoke’s unique mayor and council manager model in 2008, Stoke became the first authority to hold a second referendum on its governance model, with a vote on whether to adopt a leader and cabinet model being held in October. The city voted 59%-41% to abandon the mayoral system entirely. Meredith will serve out the remainder of his term as Mayor before abolition. 2002 CPA assessment: Fair 2007 CPA assessment: 3* (equivalent to Good), improving well.

Torbay Mayor: Nicholas Bye (Conservative). Torbay is the most recent authority to adopt a directly elected mayor, voting 55%-45% in favour in a July 2005 referendum. This ended a three year drought of ‘yes’ votes since Stoke, Mansfield, Hackney and Bedford voted in May 2002. Since Torbay, only three authorities have held referendums (Crewe & Nantwich, Darlington and Bury), all resulting in ‘no’ votes. Torbay is therefore the only authority to have only held one election for mayor to date. In October 2005, the Conservative candidate Nicholas Bye was comfortably elected out of a field of 14 candidates (including 11 independents), with the Liberal Democrat candidate in second place. Reflecting the Conservative majority on the council, Bye’s cabinet is wholly composed of Tory councillors. Having lost North Tyneside in May 2005, Bye is the Conservative’s only elected mayor at local government level. 2003 CPA assessment: Weak 2007 CPA assessment: 2* (equivalent to Fair), improving well.

Watford Mayor: Dorothy Thornhill (Lib Dem). Watford was the first local authority in the country to vote for a directly elected mayor, with a referendum on 12 July 2001 producing a ‘yes’ vote by a margin of just under 500 votes. Three authorities (Berwick-upon-Tweed, Cheltenham and Gloucester) had previously held referendums and voted overwhelmingly ‘no’. Liberal Democrat candidate and local councillor Dorothy Thornhill was elected in 2002 and remains the party’s only elected mayor. Since 2005, she has also been the only female mayor. She was re-electedin 2006 on first preferences, narrowly avoiding a run-off, easily defeating the Conservative candidate (with Labour a close third). Watford council is overwhelmingly Liberal Democrat and this is a key target for them at the next general election, in what appears to be a three-way marginal. 2004 CPA assessment: Weak 2007 CPA assessment: Good

A number of things spring to the eye from this quick overview: firstly, that every authority with an elected mayor has improved its CPA rating since adopting a mayoral system (with the exception of Hartlepool, which already received top ratings). Now this might simply be that the councils have got better at form-filling exercises, or there might genuinely have been a move forward in terms of performance and strategy. Secondly, there seems to be a certain degree of incumbency benefit for elected mayors: of the eleven mayors who have thus far faced a second election, only two have failed to achieve re-election. Whether this holds for their third attempts, we shall start to see over the coming year – after all, this was the hurdle at which Ken Livingstone fell.

Is this directly-elected mayors experiment worthwhile? Its probably too early yet to say. From the outset I have been generally in favour of them, hoping that they would inject political strategic leadership into the upper echelons of local government, where unelected officers have had a tendency to hold too much sway, leading to institutional conservatism. In some places this appears to have worked, with the three London boroughs and Middlesbrough being reasonable examples. In others, particularly district councils with very limited powers anyway, the elected mayor seems to be little more than a civic figurehead, with officers holding as much power as ever before. The completely random nature of which areas have voted ‘yes’ has not helped the project and if it is to be taken forward, I feel efforts need to be made to concentrate it on major urban centres that can genuinely benefit from strategic political leadership. Its a great idea, but it just can’t work everywhere.


1 Comment »

  1. As luck would have it, albeit two years too late:

    Comment by Andrew — January 24, 2010 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

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