Better, not more democracy

Do you know who the Chief Executive of Leeds City Council is? This person oversees the management of a £650 million budget and the operations of local government in our city. Notably, he does take an interest in the cultural and business life of the city and has considerable influence on investment in the area, having been involved with the biggest business group in Yorkshire, which was effectively closed down by the Coalition government last year.

Do you know who the Lord Mayor of Leeds is? This role is largely honorary and is elected by the council for a year. He will attend a variety of events and functions and act as the civic representative of Leeds.

You probably know who the Mayor of London is. The capital is about to go to the polls to elect a Mayor for the fourth time. Ken Livingstone is running for the fourth time against the incumbent, Boris Johnson, with the Liberal Democrat, Brian Paddick, running for a second time. Livingstone’s two terms were a mixed success: he introduced the Congestion Charge and tried to corral transport fares and backed the city for the Olympic bid in 2005, once again becoming the person who embodied London before becoming enmired in allegations of grift and favouritism, meaning that Johnson won in 2008 and became known to the world as the somewhat dishevelled waver of the Union Jack at the Olympic closing ceremony in Beijing. Johnson’s notable first term achievements are the return of the Routemaster to the city’s streets and the introduction of ‘Boris bikes’.

On May 3rd we residents of Leeds have the opportunity to vote in a referendum to decide whether the city has an elected mayor. The elected mayor would have a four year term. That’s about as much as is certain at the moment. The post might replace the Lord Mayor. The post might replace the Chief Executive. Or it might not. That, for me, is the issue. We are being asked to vote on an serious change in the local democratic process without actually knowing what that change will entail, with the one emolient so far being the promise of a mayoral cabinet that would consult directly with the Prime Minister. The election is part of a promised package for the ten core cities of England. At the moment, Leicester has an elected mayor who has been in office for a year and still does not know the extent of his powers and duties.

Several towns and cities adopted elected mayors under Labour and the results have been less than stellar to say the least. Some have succumbed to the cult of personality, others to indifference that have lead to the representatives of minority political parties being able to exercise excessive power based on prejudice and false assumptions. The assumption in even having a referendum is that the ‘core cities’ want to follow this pattern.

It has been suggested that Leeds is struggling to achieve its potential at the moment because of the succession of hung councils that have been returned since the turn of the century. Compare this to Manchester’s seemingly perpetual Labour majority and the sense of purpose that it creates and it might be a valid suggestion. On the other hand it might be as simple as the civic pride and sense of place that has often been lacking in Leeds and indeed Yorkshire, which is in part the way we are, although it’s never prevented our neighbours down the M1 from getting on. But do we need an elected cheerleader? Would we get one? I think it’s unlikely. The options available for an elected mayor appear to be either a representative of the party machines as with the council, a figurehead who can promote the city’s public face and attract inward investment and support, or an expert who is willing to make the move from an functional role to a political role.

Party politics in this country is at a nadir. The three main parties have hardly anything to distinguish them in the majority of their policies. Politics is a career choice rather than a calling. A political city leader would have to play the game and be trapped in the cycle of re-election and image management that inhibits genuine change. Worse, the low level of interest in civic politics could, as in Doncaster, result in a minority party gaining power. While it’s true to say we get the politicians we deserve, an elected mayor places too much power on a single person or office without checks and balances.

So do we go beyond politics and find candidates who stand on their beliefs and merits? Ken Livingstone was elected as London mayor in 2000 without the support of the Labour Party, his personal reputation as the last leader of the Greater London Council carrying the election as a response to the often perceived injustice of the abolition of the GLC. While his politics were and are of the left, he represented London. Could we find someone could do the same in Leeds?

What about a skilled administrator? Would a senior manager like Tom Riordan be prepared to stand on his merits to be hired in an elected position? We have little history of this in the UK although it has been suggested for police and fire chiefs. Do our administrators need public approval to do their job? On the one hand it would give the job someone with acknowledged skills in the field. On the other they too would have to play the electoral game, which is always more than just a few months before polling day.

At the moment none of these questions have answers. We are being asked to make a decision on minimal information, a decision that would have huge ramifications for the way that our city is run, and that isn’t acceptable. A city is much more than its political structure, and politics will not create lasting answers to many of the pressing issues that Leeds has. Last year the Conservatives crushed the debate on electoral reform for a generation. This year they are intent on chaining the major cities to an outdated system in return for some crumbs of patronage from national government. We deserve a lot more than that.

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