Perceptions of an underperforming council, anonymous leadership, lack of clout in Whitehall and progress stifled by inter and intra-party battles all contributed to a Yes vote in a referendum for a directly elected mayor in the City of Bristol in 2012. Yet as Bristol voted yes a further nine cities chose to reject the mayoral model and persist with their existing arrangements. As politicians and activists in Cardiff and across the channel in Bath make moves to secure a referendum on changing their system of governance it is worth considering why the directly elected mayoral model exhibits zombie like qualities in its persistence.
The principle of directly elected mayors is not a new innovation, from being first applied in London in 2000 as part of the New Labour government’s modernisation strategy which aimed to enrich local democracy and strengthen accountability the model has been pushed as the solution to transform local government by subsequent governments. Before the 2012 series of referendums there had been over forty referenda on changed to the elected mayoral model, the majority by quite some way opting against changing the model with turnout being pretty derisory across the board.
One crucial challenge has clearly come in turning a campaign from the initial 5% petitioners required to secure a referendum into a viable movement for change which cuts through voter apathy and offers electors a vision for transformative change. Analysis following the 2012 referenda offered a number of factors which contributed to the dominance of ‘no’ votes. The dominant sentiments amongst the electorate were confusion and uncertainty about precisely what they were being asked to endorse or reject. The perceived risk of electing a single individual, whose role was unclear, and with unclear guidelines about how they could be removed if performing poorly was used by a number of ‘no’ campaigns to position the change to an elected mayor as an inherently risky and intractable choice.
In a number of cases where ‘yes’ votes occurred it stemmed from a reaction to strong criticisms from campaigners of the machinations of party politics with slow progress, infighting and opaque decision making being portrayed as the source of the ills of local government. In Bristol this played out through a strong ‘anti-politics’ sentiment and calls to put the city and its people ahead of a London dominated system of party politics. Most notably the successful yes campaign was led by non-aligned activists from a broad range of backgrounds and communities who offered a strong counter to the standard campaigns of local political party organisations who themselves were slow to mobilise on either side of the debate. It was therefore no surprise when Bristol elected an Independent candidate George Ferguson as its first elected mayor. The depiction of party politics causing all of Bristol’s problems is perhaps unfair, the city until this year has been subject to elections by thirds which itself can be seen as the strongest contributory factor to the perceived political instability and stagnation of previous years. Nevertheless the change narrative was strong enough to deliver an elected mayor where other campaigns failed.
The sell for an elected mayor remains a difficult one for a number of reasons. Firstly in some respects the game has changed, the proposals for and development of ‘metro mayors’ or ‘conurbation mayors’ offer an opportunity for a greater devolution settlement. Secondly there is a collective action problem for elected mayors, when the majority of cities chose to say no to mayors the opportunity for Cameron’s much trailed ‘Cabinet of Mayors’ was lost so access to Whitehall remains a significant challenge. Finally the position of elected mayor at present comes with no significant additional power, anything that comes down to cities will be negotiated as part of new individual settlements. The governance change relates to how a council works and how its powers are distributed not in fact the powers or competencies it has. Nevertheless the mayoral model has delivered for the City of Bristol across a number of domains. A recent study ‘The Impacts of Mayoral Governance in Bristol’ by Professor Robin Hambleton of the University of the West of England and Dr David Sweeting of the University of Bristol showed a number of positive outcomes of the governance changes in Bristol. Most notably their research shows that across the City there has been a strong perceived improvement in leadership of the city, particularly in a significantly improve visibility of the leadership, a clearer vision for the city being shown and the city leadership being seen as more influential than under the leader and cabinet model. If the campaigns in Cardiff and Bath are to succeed it is across these domains that benefits of the elected model can be asserted. The notion of a single figurehead, who can express a vision for the city and get things done to achieve that vision is a strong message for campaigners. However in order to deliver that a mayor will have to carry the people and the councillors with them and in many respects the change is more about the attitude of individual mayors on what they can achieve than the powers that mayors might be given.
This was originally an invited post for the Institute of Welsh Affairs: