Labour should properly embrace elected mayors, says Andy Westwood

Back in 1997 Labour’s big idea for local government was the election of city mayors. But it appeared and then disappeared in an instant. After creating the office of mayor of London (and then a few others in places like Middlesborough, Newham and Hartlepool), Labour enthusiasm quickly waned as an independent Ken Livingstone fought and won it. After a second term as the Labour candidate, he lost it again. But Ken has been rehabilitated once more and has been selected to fight again in 2012. Does his return suggest that we should take a moment to rethink our rather lukewarm attitude to mayors in England’s other larger cities? Mayoral elections are now in the pipeline with the government committed to introducing the offices in England’s twelve largest cities.

But we should pause and take a breath. This is far from a popular idea – among many in the Labour party and perhaps even more so in the wider electorate. Some readers will already be writing their comments – and they won’t be positive. Most local councillors in cities across England are not keen. National politicians have been happy to drop the idea given the degree of opposition from some town halls. Even Eric Pickles has been lobbied by Tory and coalition councils to back off. And perhaps they all have a point. After all, we’ve started to win back many of the city councils that we lost during our time in government. But we really should think about it more deeply – not least because we will need to fight any mayoral elections every bit as hard as we plan to do to in London.

Cities matter – as foundations of the economy and of a good society. They also matter to the Labour party and to the renewal of our politics. They were the centres of our industrial and economic history and of our Labour traditions. In 2010 cities still return the majority of our MPs and councillors. Cities are where the big arguments of policy will happen – fairness, jobs, immigration, rebuilding “broken Britain”. But do we value them enough to rethink the way we govern them?

In many ways, we barely recognise the importance of cities. Local government powers don’t really capture their economic or social realities and they barely exist in electoral terms – constituencies and council boundaries don’t reflect the places that we know and live and work in. We don’t allow local councils either the resources or the levers to tackle many of these massive economic and societal issues. This is way out of step with most countries in the world. The OECD average for locally raised taxation (as a proportion of overall tax payments) stands at 55%. In England the proportion is only 17% and most of that is directed from the centre and not by local councils. In cities throughout the world, local laws and policies are discussed, debated and delivered – but not in England. Instead we have the rather circuitous attempts to define a new localism (by Labour and Tories alike) and then a slow realisation that it never really amounts to much at all.

Elsewhere, city mayors are big figures in national and international politics – Rudy Giuliani and now Michael Bloomberg in New York, Jordi Hereu in Barcelona, Bertrand Delanoe in Paris, Christian Ude in Munich. Rahm Emmanuel has just quit the White House to contest the mayoral elections in Chicago – a move less likely to be repeated in the UK. These mayors have control over policy and resources as well as over the real boundaries of the cities themselves. We can of course add Boris Johnson and London to that list, but nobody else.

Why in the dramatically unequal economic geography in England, do we not take other cities seriously? It certainly didn’t used to be this way. Town halls in each of our leading cities speak of a time when civic pride shaped the national as well as local political landscape. The government plans to introduce mayors, but shows no idea of how to give the offices or their cities any real power.

Eric Pickles says he wants them to hold real power, but it’s clear that he’s crossing his fingers and hoping for the best on that front. Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) are being established largely in the same places but with no connection to mayors. The regional growth fund has been tasked with rebalancing the UK’s economy – unlikely with only £1 billion over two years – but again with no connection to mayors. In the same period we’ll be spending £9 billion on the olympics in east London. Cllr Joe Anderson, leader of Liverpool city council, pointed out a Labour party conference fringe that £1 billion has just about bought them a new shopping centre in Liverpool…

This isn’t a matter of rethinking what councils do or of winning and running more local councils in cities. It simply won’t be enough to breathe life into the economic and political potential of our cities. Eric Pickles is right about “home rule”, but he needs to back that up with much more than just transparency and accountability. If he really wants to create a new wave of Joseph Chamberlains then he will need to persuade his cabinet colleagues that mayors must have more power over a range of centrally controlled budgets and services and not just the ability to publish spending on pot plants and paperclips. He could start with responsibility for LEPs and a larger city-based regional growth fund. He could add powers on transport, skills and regeneration. But he simply can’t talk up the power and potential of mayors while trashing the reputation of politicians and local government at the same time.

If referendum votes support them, then mayoral elections are going to happen not just in London but also in Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Wakefield, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham and Newcastle. We cannot and should not fight these campaigns without conviction or vision. We should be supporting the referenda and aiming to win all twelve mayoral offices, putting the contests at the heart of our renewal – and at the heart of our economic and social ambitions for the country. A new wave of Labour city mayors should become an alternative opposition and a stepping stone back to power for Labour at the next general election.

In London, the office of mayor has transformed politics in the city. The selection of Labour’s candidate between Ken Livingstone and Oona King was a high profile process – as was that of Boris prior to 2008. Here’s the killer argument – turnout has risen steadily in each of the three mayoral elections in London. In 2008 over a million voted for Boris (and nearly a million for Ken). Compare that to our other leading cities where no leader can claim more than a couple of thousand votes and the backing of their fellow councillors. Mike Whitby, Tory leader of Birmingham – England’s second city of over one million people – was elected in his Harborne constituency with some 4,500 votes. David Faulkner, the Lib Dem leader of Newcastle polled 1600 votes. Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol, and Nottingham all have similar statistics.

Votes and accountability matter, but so too do the powers and capacity that come with them. Professional staff, specialist officers and advisers, real power over budgets and services as well as the scrutiny and accountability that comes with them – from opposition and national politicians, from the media and from the public who vote for them. Debates and decisions matter – whether for crossrail, the olympics, policing and crime, public transport or housing.

Obviously, the Tories and Lib Dems haven’t grasped what it will take to effectively empower English cities. It will take much more than just mayors with little power, weak local enterprise partnerships and a paltry regional growth fund. Rebalancing the economy will require some rebalancing of democracy too. We should support and enable a new generation of city leaders. What better way of opposing the government and its destructive regional and local government programme? In the aftermath of the shadow cabinet elections it is worth noting that this is a way of being in office and in opposition at the same time. So what about selecting some of Labour’s big names to stand as Mayors in our largest cities? Boris and Ken continue to prove that these are important positions with high political profile. So what about David Blunkett in Sheffield? James Purnell in Manchester? Or even David Miliband in Newcastle?

Andy Westwood was an adviser to Labour ministers.

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4 Responses to “Labour should properly embrace elected mayors, says Andy Westwood”

  1. Ed Turner says:

    Don’t agree at all, I’m afraid (except with the contention that if these wretched offices do come about, we should fight to win – as we should all elections).

    1. The coalition government appears to be backing away from holding referendums before creating the offices, in favour of holding “confirmatory referendums” thereafter – surprised you hadn’t picked this up before writing the piece. There are already perfectly adequate mechanisms in place for people to demand a mayor if they want one, and surely we should be opposing a government that seeks to impose change in structures, in a top-down fashion, because it doesn’t trust public opinion.

    2. If turnout for a mayor is higher, that’s not a deal-clincher. It might be that the vote in national UK elections would be higher if we elected a powerful head of state. Would this clinch the deal? Of course not. I think turnout is best raised by effective local campaigns winning the support of local people, not by tinkering with structures.

    3. Local government in recent years has been a success story, yet the mayoral model has an appalling record of failure (Doncaster and Stoke spring to mind; let’s see what happens in Tower Hamlets; it’d be necessary at least to debate whether it had been so effective in Hartlepool and North Tyneside, for example, is open to debate). If this record of failure had been replicated across the UK, we’d be in huge trouble. Why keep flogging a horse that has proven so hopeless at delivering? It’s appreciated there are some success stories too, but good elected mayors like Jules Pipe, Steve Bullock and Dorothy Thornhill would have been capable of making a real difference as council leaders too.

    4. The article makes the case for devolving powers to effective elected politicians. That’s fine, but why do you need to foist a structure that local people don’t want on them first?

    5. It’s noted that “professional staff, specialist officers and advisors” are needed. These obviously exist in major cities already, supporting council leaders – is it really being argued that now is the time to create more such jobs to support directly-elected leaders that communities don’t want? If so, no wonder the government is running scared of holding referendums!

    6. In taking power away from backbench councillors, elected mayors potentially make the role far less attractive, and thus risk damaging local government by excluding those who will only become councillors if they really see the difference they can make.

    There are plenty of good ways of reinvigorating local democracy, and the transfer of greater power, as the article identifies, is certainly one. Cheering on the undemocratic imposition of unwanted mayoral structures, which have a track record of failure except in the imaginations of policy wonks, is not one of them.

  2. Mick Williams. says:

    A typical London-centric view and selective examples do nothing for any real argument in favour of elected mayors. It comes as no surprise to learn that Andy was an ‘advisor’ to Labour Ministers.

    Errr, that would be ‘NEW’ Labour Ministers would it ?

    Of course there are other views from London which are not so enamoured with the concept of an elected mayor – hence their contacting ‘democracy4stoke’ to get some information on the successful referendum in 2008 which abolished the system here.

    This followed a typical bullying attempt by the Labour Party Regional Office to undermine our campaign, using a letter to all party members in the City to threaten disciplinary action and describing D4S as an ‘inappropriate organisation’ for decent Director-fearing members to be associated with. It is not clear just who sanctioned this and D4S has never been proscribed or even discussed …

    (And it conveniently forgot to mention that D4S was founded in 2002 with 85% of its members coming from the Labour Party. It was largely funded by the Labour Group, several trade unions, the Co-op Party and countless individual citizens. Other support came from Labour Campaign for Open Local Government – sadly disbanded after the successful referendum to keep out an elected mayor in Crewe. Perhaps surviving LCOLG members could resuscitate their effective and highly democratic organisation ?)

    However, D4S continues, since it recognises that there is still a need for a body to:
    “… co-ordinate and support the efforts of those (of all political persuasions and none) who seek to establish a form of governance for the area which is decent, honest and legal and which truly reflects the wishes of its citizens” (Mission Statement).

    Anyone wishing to know more can access and anyone wishing to DO more can contact us via that website (that’s me in the stripey flat cap).

    Mick Williams,
    Convenor, democracy4stoke.

  3. Bill Turner (Tower Hamlets) says:

    Hi Andy,

    I’m a Labour Councillor in Tower Hamlets. I’ve afraid pretty much everything you say is mistaken in my view. I’ve never held a job ‘advising ministers’ but I have been successfully elected twice in the challenging political environment of Tower Hamlets.

    I’m too busy to reply at length as I’m busy campaigning for a Labour Executive Mayor in Tower Hamlets. I will do at some point.

    But perhaps – genuinely – you would like to join me on the campaign trial. You would be most welcome and I’ll buy you a drink to discuss this post if you take me up on the offer!

    Drop me an email at bill.turner (at)

    Polling day is 21 Oct and it would be great to have you out on the stump.

    best wishes,


  4. andy westwood says:

    I knew that Labour support for mayors was shaky and in the article I did say that there will be many people who will disagree and leave comments to that effect.

    But let me say a few things in response. First, I think this is largely a good idea for large English cities – and especially the Core Cities’ group of Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield, Bristol and Leeds. Labour used to run all of the cities in the 1970s, 1980s and most of the 1990s. Second, I believe that city mayors with new powers and resources could help to rebalance the economy and renew democratic participation. Third, I don’t think we can afford the hope that real devolution or localism will come to our cities without some leap of faith like this.

    Finally – I’ve emailed Bill and offered to help out with the Tower Hamlets campaign, I’m not very New Labour and I’m not from London…



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