The Consolation Prize

On Thursday, voters in Salford decided in favour of having a directly elected mayor. It was also a local decision to call the referendum in the first place. Bristolians are being forced to hold a poll whether they like it or not, under the so-called Localism Act. The £475,000 it will cost has to be met by council tax payers initially, then reclaimed from the London regime.

It’s what known as a ‘confirmatory’ referendum. Not that the outcome is being prejudged, you understand, but Bristolians should be under no illusions which way they’re being instructed to vote.

With the Government’s consultation on elected mayors attracting just 19 responses across England, the policy hasn’t attracted huge public interest, despite all the hype. The turnout for mayoral referenda has been low. In Salford on Thursday it was just 18.1%. Barbara Janke, the Leader of Bristol City Council, has warned that “the electorate is palpably apathetic and there is a real danger of having elected mayors imposed on Bristol by a tiny minority of enthusiasts if the referendum turnout is low enough.” If so, it could all end up a costly mistake. In 2009, voters in Stoke-on-Trent changed their minds and abolished their elected mayoralty.

Next November is local democracy month. The Government announced its intention on Wednesday to hold elections for 11 directly elected mayors across England – if approved at referenda in May – on what’s being dubbed ‘super Thursday’. At the same time, elections will also be held for Police and Crime Commissioners, of which there will be seven in Wessex (also taking in Buckinghamshire and Cornwall due to incongruous boundaries). Bristol is the only city in Wessex that will be forced to vote on having an elected mayor.

We’re suspicious of moves to concentrate political power in fewer and fewer hands – the ‘Little Society’ that Cameron, Clegg, Miliband & Co are all driving forward. The argument that other countries do things this way is worth examining on its detailed merits but not as an argument in its own right. That sounds too much like globalisation for globalisation’s sake. Does Bristol need a Boris? No. It needs some real politics, not a media-savvy, business-friendly buffoon to be used as a mouthpiece for who knows what interests.

According to communities minister Greg Clark, elected mayors can give “strong, visible leadership” to cities. “This is an opportunity for each city to transform itself for the better,” he claimed. So are a lot of things. Having a big personality in charge won’t automatically make any difference at all. The powers that are needed are not being devolved. The big regional and sub-regional issues of environment and transport don’t sit within tight city boundaries and any mayor who thinks the surrounding areas, with their own electorates to serve, will bow to his or her will is in for a shock.

So why the focus? A few years ago, one of our members phoned in to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Answers?’ programme to ask why devolution was not being extended to Wessex. Quick as a flash, Jonathan Dimbleby said that the (then Labour) government was offering elected mayors. An irrelevant response but indicative that the message is that reorganisation of existing local powers is all that voters in England deserve. The creation of unitary authorities, such as Wiltshire Council, sits in the same category. Reshuffling the pack. Adding no new cards.

In 2000, the Fabian Society published one of their revealing, if turgid pamphlets, one entitled The English Question. Professor Gerry Stoker contributed a critique of regionalism, concluding that elected mayors are a better solution than handing out regional government to the English as compensation for not being Scottish or Welsh. It might be asked in reply what compensation it is to rural Wessex to be offered an elected mayor for our largest city, which accounts for just 5% of our population. The drive for elected mayors is a metropolitan idea with nothing to say to the vast majority of Wessex folk, except that their future is expected to be shaped by someone for whom only the urban few get to vote. It ought to be astonishing that it’s acquired the momentum that it has. But as a device to divert attention from the democratic deficit at regional level, its success should be no surprise at all.