Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Saying 'No' to a Bristol mayor

Thursday sees the referendum on whether or not Bristol should have a mayor, along with the other large cities who are also being forced into having a vote.  As I'm away from Bristol later this week, I've already voted (my first ever postal vote!) and I've voted 'no'.

There is no Lib Dem line on this issue.  I would say that around 80% of my colleagues are voting 'no', but there are contrary voices too.  The more democratically minded parts of the Labour Party are in the 'no' camp (the 'no' campaign is led by a former Labour councillor and Lord Mayor), along with the Green Party and the large trade unions.  The 'yes' campaign is largely comprised of the Conservatives and New Labour.

There are many reasons why I think mayors as currently configured are a very bad idea, largely as it is such a risky way to run a city.  I could probably write for several pages on this, but I'll stick to a handful of main ones:
  1. I believe that power is best when it is shared.  At the moment, the 70 councillors all have little bits of power in different ways and this means that all voices in the city are heard to a greater or less extent.  Those 70 individuals represent ages from 20s to 70s, men and women, White and BME, rich and poor, gay and straight, left, right and liberal and all parts of the city.  Yes, we have rows from time to time, but ultimately the tide of the Council's decision making follows the mainstream of what the majority of local people think and want.  How can this diversity be vested into one person, who experience from other places suggests is most likely to be a white, middle-aged, rich man?  Diversity and plurality might not always be the most efficient, but they are tried and tested means of running societies since ancient times.
  2. Despite what the 'yes' supporters think, a mayor will be less democratic, not more.  Fundamentally, there is no way of getting rid of him (I'll stick to 'him' - see above).  Once elected, he will serve his term and there is no means of chucking him out if he starts doing things that people don't like.  Have politicians ever said one thing to get elected and then done something different?  Of course they have!  If the Leader of Council were to go off the rails, they would either be removed by their own councillors or all councillors through a 'no confidence' vote.  There is no means to do this with a mayor.  Even worse, there is no realistic means by which the city collectively can get rid of the mayor either.  Those places who've opted for mayors in the past are able to change their minds through a second referendum, but Bristol would be saddled with one forever - only an Act of Parliament could remove the position.  If you want a cautionary tale, Google 'Doncaster Mayor' and see what you get - they are having a referendum to get shot of theirs on the same day as he's been such a disaster.  Stoke already have lost theirs.
  3. There is too much scope for corruption and buying power.  By placing power in the hands of one individual, the doors of corruption are swung wide open.  Firstly, it becomes much easier for big money and vested interests to get their man (see above) to the top - all they have to do is bankroll a campaign on a level beyond that which political parties could afford.  Also, they don't have the worry about having to deal with dozens of different councillors and candidates - nobble one person and you've done the trick.  The mayor will get to replace the current elected Cabinet with their own people, so that their tendrils will reach down to control all aspects of the city.  It's often said that in America at any time, at least 50 mayors are in jail - it's easy to see why!  Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  4. No evidence that it'll do any good.  In some ways, this is the simplest argument of all.  There is absolutely no evidence that mayors are any better than running cities than councillors - none whatsoever.  Look down the list of places with mayors and think about whether they are paragons of excellence in local government.  Maybe they are (two are Lib Dem, after all!), but nobody has ever demonstrated that in any scientific way that I've seen.  One of the delusions that the 'yes' campaign has is that mayors are good for reconnecting people with politics.  There is no evidence for this either.  The mayors that exist now, with the exception of London, have voter turnouts that are generally comparable or less than local councillors.  Here in Cotham, the turnout is 35-40% which is about average for Bristol - just 25% of people chose Watford's mayor.
  5. Too much power, too little power.  While I have argued above that a mayor will have too much power, they will ironically also have too little.  A Bristol mayor will not have any meaningful extra powers over what the current Leader of Council and their Cabinet have. Most importantly, they will have little or no power over buses and trains (private companies), school (governing bodies), neighbouring authorities (obviously, but some people I've spoken to think it'll be a mayor of the old Avon), business rates (national government) or a raft of other things that people often think that the Council controls, but doesn't.  They will be hamstrung as much as the Council currently.  A far more important issue for Bristol is the power that we hold as a city and as citizens.  To the best of my knowledge, no place with a mayor has been given any extra powers with the exception of London - there are vague murmurings from government, but it's a pig in a poke. 
  6. Supermayor - he's everywhere!  Some people I've spoken to have this lovely idea that a mayor will simultaneously be able to run the city more effectively (see above) and also 'speak up for Bristol in London and Europe'... whatever this means!  Is that really what the city needs - a part-time mayor who isn't even in Bristol most of the time?  Speaking up for Bristol is what MPs are elected to do and, in my experience, all four of them (two Labour, one Lib Dem and one Tory) do a pretty good job of it, especially when they work together.  Is there any evidence, again, that Bristol is deficient on the national or international stage?  The last few years have been extremely successful for the city in pulling in external investment - from the top of the head, £40m for new school building, £42m for transport infrastructure, £10m for cycling, £75m (mainly loan) for renewable energy, £5m for sustainable transport etc etc.  I don't want a mayor who's paid through my Council Tax to gladhand their way around the world.
OK - that'll do me for now!  I could add another dozen reasons why a mayor is a bad idea, but I won't as most people have probably already stopped reading.  Ironically, I could support the idea of a mayor if it was configured in a different way, with proper accountability, democratic oversight and checks and balances - one which worked with councillors as local representatives, instead of being above them and able to ignore them and the people they represent.  This isn't it - we're being bullied into a deal that binds our hands for a generation and one that's just too risky to accept.  Think carefully on Thursday and remember that the grass is not always greener.

13 comments:

Alex Woodman said...

Well said Neil!

dkernohan said...

Thanks Neil - really good post. I'd not come across you or this blog before, but I am heartened to learn that a sensible chap such as yourself is my councillor!

I've seen very little from the "no" side of this argument, so I'll be sharing this post with a few people as a bit of balance to the rather glossy "yes" campaign.

christian martin said...

Great stuff Neil - I shall be quoting liberally!

Sam Saunders said...

My feeling is that the arguments for a Mayor as as weak as teh arguments against.

So intuition and hope are all we have. My intuition is that Bristol Council are in a bad way at present, with no hope of improvement. It might be individual failings, structural failings or national policy failings that are to blame. Nevertheless, this referendum is a chance to turn over some stones and shake off the lethargy. Saying no is a bit like sitting at the bottom of a hill for fear of walking up.

We live in troubled times. Let's give ourselves the chance of something being different.

Neil Harrison said...

Sam - where's your evidence for the Council being in a bad way? It's performing now at the best level in my 12 years in the city. I've mentioned the massive success at attracting capital investment into the city, but there are also the independent plaudits too like being shortlisted for European Green Capital (http://www.cotham.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/bristol-gets-green-capital-nod.html) and voted best small city in Europe for business (http://www.businesswest.co.uk/news/2012/03/23/bristol-in-top-spot-as-small-city-of-the-future). The spending cuts have been difficult (and out of the Council's control), but we're managing with fewer job losses than other cities and no libraries or children's centres closing. Nothing's perfect, but you sound like you listen to the doom merchants a little too much.

Alex Woodman said...

The Bristol Says No campaign has published a series of statistics demonstrating that Bristol doesn't underperform. You can find it at http://bristolsaysno.org/ A lot of the criticism of the Council is truly unjustified. It's a shame that the referendum is being seen by some as a chance to vote on the Council's performance, rather than on the merits of different forms of governance - the two are linked, but they're not the same thing!

John Rippon said...

Neil: how does your confidence that most Lib Dems will vote "No" square with our Lib Dem MP, Stephen Williams, declaration that he will be voting "Yes"?

Neil Harrison said...

John - Stephen and I disagree strongly on this one, though he's said on various occasions that he's only a 51:49 'yes'. Nearly all councillors are voting 'no' - I only know of one 'yes' out of the 30, but there may be a couple of others.

Rick said...

sublin errywhorI amd inclined agree with you, but had wondered where the campaigns had got to. We have seen nothing either for or against.

Neil Harrison said...

Rick - because only the Tories and the Green Party have party lines, campaigning has been left to individual councillors. Anthony and I have been delivering 'no' literature over the last few days, but we've not managed to get around the whole of Cotham.

Anonymous said...

"(Stephen Williams has) said on various occasions that he's only a 51:49 'yes'."

Is that an indication of his confidence that he'll get the job? If so, he overrates himself.

Anonymous said...

"A mayor of the old Avon".....no thank you! Does that imply the abolition of North Somerset council as well?......and we residents of North Somerset didnt even get a vote!

Neil Harrison said...

Anon - no need to worry! That's just one of the misapprehensions under which some voters were labouring.