In a speech in Manchester recently, Chancellor George Osborne spoke of a ‘revolution in the way we govern England’. As a result, the Queen’s Speech included a bill for a ‘radical new model of city government’, giving more control over policy areas such as housing, planning and transport to English cities. In return, these cities would be expected to directly elect a city wide mayor to be held accountable for these new powers. Here, George Jones makes the case against the proposals.
The main argument against the Directly-Elected Executive Mayor (DEEM) model outlined by George Osborne is its concentration of power in a single person. The assumption of the advocates of DEEMs is there must be individual leadership rather than collegial team leadership. But the advantage of collective leadership is it enables exploration of policy from different perspectives. Colleagues can consider possible impacts of policy in a variety of contexts, spotting pitfalls ahead and the consequences for different people and groups. A single person is unlikely to represent the diverse complexities of a large urban, metropolitan or county region area better than can collective leadership.
A DEEM cannot cover all the functions of the local authority. They have to rely on unaccountable personal assistants or else power slips to full-time chief officials. With the leader-cabinet system elected councillors can cover specific sets of services and ensure a democratic contribution is made to policy-making. Settling disputes in cabinets encourages coordination of policy, which can be achieved better horizontally among colleagues than vertically by one-person from above. DEEMs diminish the role of elected councils and relegate councillors to asking questions and scrutiny that have little impact on a DEEM and scant public impact.
Advocates of DEEMs might respond that DEEMs may have “cabinets” to assist them composed of members looking after specific functions. But executive powers stay with the mayor, and while the mayor and “cabinet” have some accountability to a single elected council, in combined authorities they account to a group of leaders of the component authorities. These leaders will be fully occupied with their own authorities, even with their own “cabinets”, and unlikely to be much of a check on the DEEM of a combined authority.
Supporters of DEEMs should read a recent book that argues the superiority of collective leadership: Archie Brown, The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age. He ranges across continents and across democracies and autocratic regimes, concluding that collective is better than personal leadership. Its merits include the sharing of leadership tasks, and it benefits from the interdependent relationship between leaders and their political parties. In arecent article Professor Brown writes “There are only 24 hours in the day of even the strongest leader, and the more they try to do themselves, the less time they have to focus on each decision. In practice, quite a lot ends up being decided by their unelected aides and cronies.”
Champions of DEEMs assume strong and publicly-visible leadership is absent in leader-cabinet systems. But Joseph Chamberlain in the 1870s Birmingham City Council and Herbert Morrison in the 1930s London County Council were not directly-elected, nor in the 1980s were Shirley Porter leader of the City of Westminster and Ken Livingstone leader of the Greater London Council, and yet they were highly visible leaders in their localities. Similar well-known leaders in many towns and cities flourished throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without being directly elected, such as Eric Pickles in Bradford 1988-90.
Another major objection to DEEMs is the lack of a power of recall. If a DEEM turns bad or ineffective during the four-year term, and loses the confidence of the council, in the current English model there is no provision for the removal of a DEEM until the next election, although a leader can be ejected. Many states in the USA and Germany and other countries have a power of recall leading to a new election, either through a petition from the people or a council vote of no-confidence with a special majority.
The present Government’s scheme for a northern powerhouse to be directed by a DEEM covering combined local authorities is promoted by the Treasury – to the amazement of many because in the past it has resisted decentralisation of powers, fiscal discretion and resources to elected local authorities, as George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer admitted in his speech earlier this month. The reason for this volte-face is political. George Osborne, political head of the Treasury, is that rare bird a Conservative northern MP, representing Tatton in north-west Cheshire, a neighbour of Greater Manchester. He must hope to stimulate economic regeneration within current Labour strongholds and thus win back support for the Conservative Party.
He has coupled the devolution of powers and expenditure with the imposition of a DEEM. George Osborne hopes the regime of DEEMs will undermine the Labour party by concentrating executive powers in a DEEM, considerably reducing the power of directly-elected councillors, and in that way opening up the prospect of Conservatives winning the DEEM elections within areas where most councillors might be Labour, following the pattern in London where a mainly Labour region has a Conservative DEEM in Boris Johnson.
The Government argues its proposals for devolution to combined local authorities and DEEMs extends local democracy. But it is a limited concept of local democracy. Membership of the combined authorities is not based on direct elections but on appointment by the constituent local authorities – normally their leaders. A new system of local government is arising based on indirect election. The composition of the combined authorities is flawed by the absence of an opposition voice from the individual local authorities and by the variable size of the authorities involved. The principles of equal representation for the electorate and of opposition representation are undermined by these structures. There is a democratic deficit in these local-accountability arrangements.
The lack of democratic legitimacy is intensified by the Chancellor insisting that to obtain the full range of devolved powers authorities have to adopt the directly-elected mayor model. Osborne says he is not imposing DEEMs but “We will transfer major powers only to those cities who choose to have a directly elected mayor.” This condition can be described as government by organisational bribe, enticing authorities to adopt the radical new model of city government, but without a referendum, which is understandable since the last set of referendums in the north in May 2012 overwhelmingly rejected DEEMs, even in Manchester. Yet the Government has now rejected a referendum in Greater Manchester on an elected mayor despite previously, and in the Conservative Party Manifesto 2015, advocating referendums as a way of empowering citizens.
The civil service welcomes combined authorities with DEEMs as a way of achieving its long-held aspiration to diminish by amalgamations the number of councils, and thus councillors who do not want to accept the line from Whitehall. Central government will in the new dispensation be able to gather together in one room the DEEMs and arrange deals with them more easily than having to haggle with a much larger number of local authorities. Sub-national government in the form of combined urban authorities and county regions headed by DEEMs will be more easily manipulated by central government than would be a system of local government.
I hope the Conservatives will turn against their current cult of personal power which is now evident in their support for directly-elected executive mayors.
Note: This article was originally published on the PSA’s Insight blog and gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: HM Treasury CC BY-NC-ND
George Jones is Emeritus Professor of Government at the LSE.