Vernon Bognador: Mayors are leading a quiet revolution that could lead to a more vibrant democracy

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. Nick Ansell/PA Wire
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. Nick Ansell/PA Wire
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THIS May saw a quiet revolution in local government when voters in six metropolitan areas – Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Peterborough and Cambridge, Tees Valley, the West of England and the West Midlands – elected metro-mayors.

A seventh metropolitan area – the Sheffield city region – is still due to elect a mayor in 2018, and others may well follow in future years. The metro-mayors differ from the mayor of London in that they enjoy more extensive statutory powers and they are not subject to scrutiny by a directly elected assembly, as with the Greater London Assembly.

The metro-mayors represent around 6.7 million people; and, if one includes the London mayoralty and the local authority mayors, around one-third of the population of England now live under mayoral regimes.

But the most important power enjoyed by the new mayors is not on the statute book at all. For these mayors, like the mayor of London, will be regarded as spokespersons for their areas, even over matters for which they have no statutory responsibility.

With an electoral mandate behind them, a mayor can mobilise public opinion and speak for local electors in a way in which the traditional council leader could not. The metro-mayors will provide a clear focus of accountability for voters, personalising local government.

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That has certainly been the case since 2000 with the mayor of London, the first directly-elected mayor in British history. He is responsible for no more than around 10 per cent of public spending in London, and has no power to raise his own taxes. Yet he is regarded by most Londoners as their spokesman on a very wide range of policies, whether or not he is statutorily responsible for them.

After the terrorist atrocity at Westminster in March, it was Sadiq Khan, the mayor, not the Home Secretary, who spoke for London; and while few people could name the leader of an old-style local authority, most Londoners know the name of their mayor.

One of the reasons why local government has been so little valued in Britain and why it has been unable to resist the process of centralisation is that there has been so sharp a separation between local and national political roles, with the local role being seen as distinctly subordinate. The metro-mayors may well alter that perception.

Before the London mayoralty, only three politicians had been able to build national careers upon their record in local government – Joseph Chamberlain, the radical mayor of Birmingham between 1873 and 1876; Herbert Morrison, first Labour leader of the London County Council between 1934 and 1940, and Ken Livingstone in an earlier incarnation as leader of the Greater London Council from 1981 until its abolition in 1986. But these three were very much exceptions to the general rule that central and local politics are in separate spheres.

When Morrison stood for the Labour leadership in 1935, his critics argued that he was a local rather than a national political leader, and that is one of the reasons why he was defeated by Clement Attlee. Morrison’s leadership role in local government was seen as a handicap, not an advantage.

The sharp separation between central and local politics in Britain contrasts sharply with politics on the Continent and in the United States where success at local or provincial level allows politicians to gain executive experience and provides a springboard for national political leadership.

In the United States, presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Carter, Clinton and George W Bush were state governors before reaching the White House. In Germany, every Chancellor between Kiesinger in 1966 and Angela Merkel in 2006 had been the leader of a provincial government. In France, Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris before reaching the Elysee, while Nicolas Sarkozy had been President of the General Council of Hauts de Seine in Paris before becoming President.

In Britain, by contrast, of recent Prime Ministers, only John Major and Theresa May have executive experience as chair of a local housing committee and a local education authority respectively. Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Gordon Brown did not have this advantage.

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A senior civil servant, exasperated by Blair’s lack of understanding of management, once burst out at him: “You have never managed anything.” “I have,” Blair replied. “I have managed the Labour Party.” But that, perhaps, is not quite the same thing as managing a government department or a local authority.

The metro-mayors, therefore, will give English city regions a voice which they have hitherto lacked, thereby helping to correct the imbalance between London and the rest of England, and acting as a counterweight to the devolved bodies inScotland and Wales.

They could also transform the relationship between central and local government by showing that a major contribution to British politics can be made from a local base. They may, therefore, yield greater prestige to a career in local government.

The metro-mayors might provide an alternative route for political leaders by making the control of territory the basis for political power.

We may in future years see a new cadre of political leaders in Britain, leaders with real executive experience.

All this might herald a real revolution both in local government and in our perception of it, leading to a new and more vibrant local democracy.

Professor Vernon Bognador is a eminent historian, constitutional expert and contributor to a new book of essays. The full verison of this article appears in an essay collection Neo-localism – rediscovering the nation published this week by the think-tank Localis.