It's a big vote with a bigger message
So now we know. The cities of the north and midlands have rejected the directly-elected mayoral model.
They have perversely decided to stick with a hotchpotch of councillors to run their authorities, and the clarity of the result means that it is unlikely that they will have to consider the question again.
One of the striking features of the referendum outcomes is that, with the exception of Bristol, voters went for the status quo. This was as much the case in Doncaster, where both mayors have been highly controversial figures, as in the nine authorities with ‘no’ votes. But is the status quo what people actually want, or were they really using the referendums – the only mechanism open to them – to say something else?
Governments of all political hues find local government inconvenient. They think it is amateurish and inefficient. Few senior politicians have local government experience, and they often find the municipal mind hard to fathom. They tend to regard it with a mixture of irritation and suspicion.
It’s not surprising, then, that many of them find the elected mayor model attractive. It produces one known leader who might be more like them, and who might be more receptive to the way in which they want to work. It replicates a personal style of decision-making which they understand, and with which they feel comfortable.
But it’s a top-down solution to the wrong problem, and for the last decade the electorate, which often understands more than the political village rather condescendingly likes to think, has largely declined to adopt it.
However, opponents of elected mayors need to recognise that for many people the status quo equates more with the devil you know than anything else. They may have rejected the establishment’s solution to the problem, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think a problem exists. They just don’t see change as synonymous with improvement. They want the bins emptied, the children educated and the old cared for, and they don’t really see how having a leader who is a ‘player on the national stage’ would help to achieve it.
What’s more, they don’t view the Boris/Ken spectacle so beloved of the media and the metropolitan elite as a feature they want to replicate locally, and the sight of MPs lining up to be candidates for jobs that didn’t exist, combined with local leaders announcing their candidacy for mayoral elections that had yet to be agreed, or against which they were actively campaigning, was less than edifying.
Other arguments – that elected mayors would close the north/south divide, for instance, or that they would be able single-handedly to generate economic growth – have been rejected before in other contexts, most notably in the ill-fated regional referendum of 2004. From my point of view, the fact that so few women become mayors, and that the main parties only occasionally stand women candidates, is also a factor in why the electorate was right.
But the main reason is this. If the problem is that collective local government is weak and lacks the powers to make a real difference, the solution must be to strengthen it rather than to weaken it further. Whatever people think of their local council it’s clear that, overwhelmingly, they don’t see top-down tinkering with structures as the way forward.
Nan Sloane is the director of the Centre for Women & Democracy