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Giving away local power has come back to bite the political centre

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It’s hard to imagine Count Binface, the independent space warrior, standing as mayor of New York, Paris, or Chicago. The Count’s regular appearances on the ballot, this time for London Mayor, reflect England’s love of satire. But it also reflects our yearning for a more independent-minded politics. 

The incoming results of the UK’s local and mayoral elections are being raked over for clues about the national scene. Will Rishi Sunak face a leadership challenge? Could the Greens gain more than one MP? This wasn’t the point of the devolution experiment the country embarked on 25 years ago. 

England and Wales have just voted for a bewildering mosaic of 10 metro-mayors, 37 police and crime commissioners and 2,636 local councillors. Few normal people can say what these roles are responsible for or how they relate to the local MP. Accountability has become more obscure, not less, with the collapse of local media scrutiny and turnout rarely exceeding 36 per cent in England’s local contests, about half that of general elections. 

When New Labour created the first wave of mayors in 2000, it was inspired by independent, charismatic American mayors who had a record of bringing investment and dynamism to their cities. Under David Cameron, the Conservatives continued to devolve power. Police and crime commissioners, introduced in 2012, were designed to emulate the crime-slashing success of Bill Bratton, the New York City police commissioner.   

With all the main political parties agreed on the need for further decentralisation, it is time to take stock. Are these new posts really enhancing local democracy, or are they just adding more layers, titles and executive offices, and billing the taxpayer for the privilege?

Far from being independent-minded outsiders, determined to shake things up, many candidates for these posts are long-standing insiders. South Yorkshire’s PCC resigned because he had previously been head of children’s services during the Rotherham grooming scandal. Northamptonshire’s PCC recently agreed not to run again after making misogynistic comments and appointing a friend with no operational experience to head the county fire service. 

Meanwhile most mayors are nominated and elected through the party machines. The narrow re-election of Ben Houchen, Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, has cheered Downing Street after a catastrophic night of Tory losses. Houchen has local popularity, but he has also accepted a Tory peerage, which ties him very closely to one party.

Arguably, the UK’s most popular mayor was the most independent. Stuart Drummond, who stood for mayor of Hartlepool in 2002 to promote the local football club dressed as its monkey mascot, never meant to win. After getting over the shock he accepted, was re-elected three times and voted tenth best mayor in the world.

It is also arguable that the UK’s most effective mayor so far is Ken Livingstone, the hard left firebrand who became London’s first mayor, to the horror of Tony Blair. Running against Labour as an independent, “Red Ken” helped craft London’s successful bid for the Olympics, introduced the universal “Oyster” travel card and the central London congestion charge, initiated the scheme that became known under his successor as “Boris bikes” and revived the bus network. The most recent incumbent, Sadiq Khan, still awaiting the London results, was so mired in partisan politics between a Conservative government, a Labour mayor and a local Labour council, that he couldn’t even reopen Hammersmith Bridge. 

Some mayors have a genuine claim to be a net gain for their areas. The former Labour MP Andy Burnham, who became mayor of Greater Manchester, cut through to the national stage when he opposed central government attempts to impose harsher restrictions on some regions during the pandemic. The West Midlands mayor Andy Street, a Conservative, made public his fury at Sunak’s decision to cut the northern leg of the HS2 rail link, then worked deftly behind the scenes to try to salvage parts of the route. But there is no robust evidence that PCCs have cut crime.

Hard questions should be asked about value for money, and accountability. Will mayors just end up attracting money from one region to another? Where’s the scrutiny, with local media collapsing? How will the Treasury justify funnelling more money to metro mayors while continuing to slash spending on local authorities, some of which are going bankrupt?

I say this as a fan of the original movement. In the 2000s I went to earnest meetings about Bratton’s command of data and Mayor Tom Bradley’s light rail network in Los Angeles. Thinkers like Tony Travers, Trevor Phillips, and Nick Boles of Policy Exchange wanted to break down the UK’s monolithic central government and restore power to local people. We were disappointed by the public repeatedly rejecting mayors, in 37 of the 54 places which held a referendum. Now, I wonder if those voters were right to be sceptical.

Compared to most of Europe and America, the UK is overcentralised. It’s quite possible that low turnouts in council, mayoral and PCC elections simply reflect their relative lack of power, compared to their counterparts in other countries. And as supporters point out, the experiments are still in their infancy.  

I supported mayors because I believe that politics is better when it’s less partisan. Seven of the top ten councils are in coalition, or run by independents. Some of the worst are in places where the same political party always wins, so there is no realistic challenge to a lazy or ineffective administration. That is the dynamic we need to change: and until it does, the last laugh may be with Count Binface.

camilla.cavendish@ft.com

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