American culture gave us the superhero. Via Nietzsche, maybe. And they gave us superhero politicians.
Blair loved all things American, so he thought we should have superheroes, too. Bring on the Mayor of London. We’ll have our own Ed Koch, or maybe a Bloomberg. Someone who’ll kick ass, and clean up the streets of Gotham. But back then, Brits knew better. They went for a beige bloke with an Estuary accent and a serious newt habit. Ken Livingstone won as the first elected Mayor of London as a mass two fingers up to Tony Blair. They basically re-elected the GLC.
But then came Boris. He is truly a superhero. He’s on his own, a one-off, a maverick, a man who makes it up as he goes along. Boris-envy drove the Tories mad. They started thinking they could have city mayors and sheriffs everywhere. Unfortunately the voters had other ideas, and rejected elected mayors in most cities where the idea was put to a referendum. We had less choice when it came to the sheriffs – Police and Crime Commissioners were imposed upon us. We responded by not voting. My PCC got elected on a turnout of 10%.
But the Tories aren’t giving up. Devolution to city-regions is being planned, just as long as we also have elected mayors.
So does it matter? I think it does.
One issue concerns the nature of local government. All towns and cities have social disparities within them. City-regions, with millions of inhabitants, will contain highly diverse communities with competing, sometimes irreconcilable interests. A council, with members representing all those communities, both formally, and through the diversity of elected members, ensure that all interests have the prospect of being heard. One person – a mayor – with the best will in the world cannot replicate this aspect of the British local government tradition. Local government, where it has power, produces strong personalities and elevates them to leadership. But they get there through the process of negotiation, alliances and a record of achievement. They are tested first.
The example of the Police and Crime Commissioners does not inspire confidence. Apart from the low turnout, there is already some evidence that distorted policing priorities are being pressed on constabularies by zealous PPCs. It’s hard to see that either democracy or effective policing by consent is enhanced by the PPC system. For every experienced, intelligent PPC, like Vera Baird, there’s a dolt, obsessed with hobby-horses. Some PCCs are making the lives of chief constables a misery for no reason, whilst others are played like patsies by chief constables who run rings around them.
But the main problem with superhero politics is that, like superhero movies, it is all fantasy. Simple, hero and villain fairy tales in place of the messy reality of local government. The only calculation that rings true is that in cities that have rejected the Tories at the ballot box, a mayoral system may give the Tories a way back to power. Just find your local Boris, stick a wodge of campaign cash and some celebrity endorsement behind the candidate, and maybe Manchester turns blue?
The Mayor of London doesn’t really have a lot of power. But mayors in city-regions with devolved budgets and responsibilities for things like the NHS will have massive power compared to today’s local government leaders whilst all power resides in Whitehall. There is nothing to suggest that this experiment is going to end well.