Although the Scottish independence campaign provoked intense disagreement from both sides, one aspect which was widely celebrated by all campaigners was the high turnout level of 84.6 per cent. Duncan McDonnell writes that we should nevertheless be careful about assuming that direct democracy will always result in this level of engagement from voters. Outlining the results of a study on the creation of directly elected mayors in Switzerland and Italy, he notes that such reforms have not had the desired impact in terms of revitalising local democracy.

As commentators in the media have noted repeatedly over the last week, Scotland’s independence referendum produced an extremely high turnout. At 84.6 per cent, turnout was not only far higher than the 63.8 per cent who voted in Scotland at the 2010 UK general election, but the highest in any British election since the introduction of universal suffrage.

However, this is a rare bright spot in Britain’s recent history of direct democracy, including previous referendums on greater autonomy in Scotland and Wales. Just 60.4 per cent voted in the referendum to establish Scottish devolution in 1997 – well below the 71.3 per cent turnout in that year’s general election. Meanwhile in Wales, participation rates have been even lower: only 50.1 per cent voted in the devolution referendum in 1997 and a mere 35.2 per cent did so in a 2011 referendum on the Welsh Assembly’s tax-raising powers.

Credit: Simon Clayson (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Credit: Simon Clayson (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

If these figures suggest a lack of public enthusiasm for greater participation, those regarding the major direct democracy innovation of the past 20 years in Britain – elected mayors – are far more damning. As Colin Rallings, Michael Thrasher, and David Cowling argue, the evidence is that “when given the opportunities to adopt mayors the electors neither participate in large numbers nor endorse the principle”. In British cities where referendums have been held to decide whether to introduce directly-elected mayors, most people have not bothered to cast their vote. Of those that have, the majority have chosen to reject the option.

In cities which have said “yes” to elected mayors, citizens have not subsequently flocked to polling stations. Rallings, Thrasher and Cowling note that when mayoral elections have been held alone (i.e. not on the same day as other types of elections), turnout has averaged just 25.5 per cent. Even in London, home of the most high-profile election, the latest Johnson v. Livingstone bout in 2012 only attracted 38.1 per cent of voters. Outside London, it says a lot that probably the best-known elected mayor has been the football mascot H’Angus the Monkey – aka Stuart Drummond – who managed to get elected (and re-elected) mayor of Hartlepool before a further referendum in 2012 abolished the office.

So, if the public has shown little enthusiasm for directly-elected mayors, who does want them? Academic work on the topic in Britain suggests that local party people are not keen on them either, especially since the presence of an elected mayor will almost certainly reduce their role and influence (for anyone interested in this, Colin Copus’s excellent book Party Politics and Local Government is well worth a read). Put simply, the push from leading figures in the major British parties to make “politics closer to the people” by allowing citizens to elect their mayors has received, at best, lukewarm responses from parties at local level and the wider public.

We can see a similar situation in continental European countries where mayoral elections have been introduced. In a recent article published in the journal Government and Opposition, Oscar Mazzoleni and I investigated firstly how local party representatives, officials and grassroots members in two Italian and Swiss cities (Genoa and Lausanne) related to and viewed the directly-elected mayors their parties had backed. We also looked at how those mayors related to and viewed their local party representatives, officials and members.

Overall, our interviews suggested that the mayors were what Colin Copus calls “party detached”. The story in both Genoa and Lausanne was of local party bosses, councillors and ordinary members feeling side-lined and of mayors feeling that those in the party did not understand the pressures and demands of leading the city. In particular, the mayors used the mandate they had been given by the public vote to justify why they did not need to consult their parties on issues as much as those in the parties would have liked.

As the leader of the mayor’s own party in Genoa told us, the mayor “is a strong presence. She wants to take all decisions”. He lamented the fact that, unlike his predecessors in earlier decades, he found himself with a much smaller party staff to support his work and with a mayor who only called him when necessary. Ordinary grassroots party members in the city also viewed the relationship as being too one-sided, with them dedicating time and effort to campaigning for the mayor’s election, but then not being sufficiently considered and listened to once “their” mayor was in office.

Nor did the citizens seem to have welcomed the change. Turnout in Genoa has fallen at every single election since directly elected mayors were introduced: by over 20 points from 78.9 per cent in 1993 to 55.5 per cent in 2012. And while it has also dropped at general elections in the city over the same period, that decrease has been much less pronounced: by just over 10 points from 85.9 per cent in 1994 to 74.7 per cent in 2013. We can find similar trends in most large Italian cities, especially when mayoral elections are not held alongside national elections.

As in Britain, the talk in Italy in the 1990s was of new elected mayors reducing the gap between people and politics and of direct democracy revitalising local democracy. But the evidence is that this has not been the case. Instead, local parties and the public have withdrawn from a zone of mutual engagement, to be replaced by the horse race of a personalised mayoral election which in most cases is popular with neither. Key democratic structures and linkages – tying together citizens, party members, councillors and local leaders – have been weakened. In the name of a greater democracy promoted and imposed from on high by national elites.

So, well done to the Scots for getting out and voting in the referendum last week. But let us not take this to mean that more direct forms of democracy are always what the people and parties on the ground want.

The Government and Opposition article by Duncan McDonnell and Oscar Mazzoleni, “Directly Elected Mayors and their Parties”, can be downloaded for free until 24 October 2014The Conversation

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. A version of this article first appeared at the Conversation.

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About the author

Duncan McDonnell – Griffith University
Duncan McDonnell is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University in Brisbane. He is the co-editor of Twenty-First Century Populism and in recent years has published articles on technocratic governments, the Lega NordOutsider Partiespersonal parties and the relationships between mayors and parties. His book ‘Populists in power’ (with Daniele Albertazzi), which looks at populist parties in government in Italy and Switzerland, will be published by Routledge in early 2015. He tweets at @duncanmcdonnell

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