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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.