If you won’t vote for an elected mayor have an unelected one
The Tories are currently bleating their heads off about how they are all for bringing politics and the exercise of political power to the people. Local democracy is, they shout ever louder, the order of the Tory day. In the vanguard is Manchester, where a mayor and a “cabinet” is to have the responsibility for the spending and administration of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on public transport, social care and housing as well as police budgets and, most dramatically, ultimately the devolving of all NHS spending for the region. When the process is completed local politicians will control more than a quarter of the total government money spent in Greater Manchester.
The political structure to support the mayor will be this:
“The mayor will lead Greater Manchester Combined Authority [GMCA], chair its meetings and allocate responsibilities to its cabinet, which is made up of the leaders of each of the area’s 10 local authorities.”
This is to be known as a city region. The mayor will not be an absolute autocrat and can have both his strategic decisions and spending proposals voted down by two thirds of the GMCA members – go to para 8. On public service issues, each GMCA member and the Mayor will have one vote, with a policy agreed by a majority vote. However, the mayor will have considerable powers and the requirement for over-ruling him on strategic decisions and spending – two thirds of the GMCA members – is onerous to say the least. That will be especially the case because the councils of the Manchester city region are largely Labour and the mayor, at least to begin with, will also be a Labour man.
The casual observer might think this is a democratisation of English politics. But wait, was not Manchester one of the nine English cities which firmly said no to an elected mayor in a referendum in as recently as 2012? Indeed it was. Manchester voted NO by 53.2% to 46.8% (48,593 votes to 42,677). Admittedly, it was only on a 24% turnout, but that in itself shows that the local population generally were not greatly interested in the idea. Nonetheless, 91,000 did bother to vote, a rather large number of voters to ignore. Moreover, low as 24% may be, many a councillor and crime and police commissioner has been voted in on a lower percentage turnout.
After the 2012 referendum the Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese said the vote was “a very clear rejection” of an elected mayor by the people of Greater Manchester while the then housing minister Grant Shapps said ‘no-one was “forcing” mayors on cities’. Three years later that is precisely what is happening to Manchester, well not precisely because Manchester is to have an interim mayor (see para 11) foisted on them without an election, who will serve for a minimum of two years and a maximum of four years before an election for a mayor is held.( The period before an elected mayor arrives will depend on how long it takes to pass the necessary legislation, create the necessary powers for the mayor and create the institutions on the ground to run the new administration ). When the time comes for the elected mayor the interim mayor, if he wishes to run for mayor, will have the considerable electoral advantage that incumbency normally brings.
Sir Richard Leese, now promoted to be vice chairman of Greater Manchester Combined Authority, has had a Damascene conversion to the idea of a mayor : “It was clear that an over-centralised national system was not delivering the best results for our people or our economy.
“We are extremely pleased that we can now demonstrate what a city region with greater freedoms can achieve and contribute further to the growth of the UK.”
The interim mayor will be appointed on 29 May by councillors meeting in private. There are two candidates, Tony Lloyd and Lord Smith of Leigh. Both are Labour Party men. This is unsurprising because the body organising the appointment is the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, (AGMA) which is comprised of the leaders of the 10 councils making up the region. Eight of them are Labour. The job description for the interim mayor included the provision that he must be a politician from Greater Manchester ‘ with a “proven track record” of “achievement at a senior level in local government”’ . These requirements made it virtually certain that both candidates would be Labour politicians.
The exclusion of the public from the appointment of interim mayor is absolute. Here is Andrew Gilligan writing in the Sunday Telegraph:
“ The two candidates for mayor have published no manifestos, done no campaigning, made no appearances in public and answered no questions from voters or journalists. Last week, The Sunday Telegraph asked to speak to both candidates. “He’d love to,” said Mr Lloyd’s spokesman. “But he’s been told he’s not allowed to talk to the media.”’
A spokesman for Lord Smith said: “He can’t speak about it until it’s over.”
Perhaps as a result, the “contest” has been barely mentioned in the local press and has gone completely unreported nationally.
His precise salary, predictably, is also not a matter for public discussion. It is being decided by an “independent remuneration committee” which meets in private and whose members’ names have not been published.
Judged by the mainstream media coverage there has been precious little public dissent about this gross breach of democracy from influential Westminster politicians. Graham Brady, Tory MP for Altrincham and chairman of the 1922 Committee, has ‘questioned whether the process was “within the bounds of propriety”, saying that any arrangement which gave the interim mayor “two or even up to four years to establish a profile and a platform for election would clearly be improper and unfair”.’ But that is about it and the appointment of the interim mayor carries on regardless.
There are many serious practical objections to devolving power to English city regions , but the naked disregard for the wishes of the voters makes the practical objections irrelevant if democracy is to mean anything. Nor is the fact that eventually there will be an elected mayor of any relevance because the voters have already rejected the idea. Even if there was to be an election for the mayor now instead of an interim mayor, it would still be wrong because the voters of Manchester have already said no to an elected mayor.
This affair smacks of the worst practices of the EU whereby a referendum which produces a result that the Euro-elites do not want is rapidly overturned by a second referendum on the same subject after the Euro-elites have engaged in a huge propaganda onslaught , bribed the offending country by promising more EU money if the result is the one the elites want and threatened the offending country with dire consequences if the second vote produces the same result as the first referendum. In fact, this piece of chicanery is even worse than that practised by the EU because here the electorate do not even get another vote before the elite’s wishes are carried out.
But there is an even more fundamental objection to the planned transfer of powers than the lack of democracy. Let us suppose that the proposal for an elected mayor for Manchester had been accepted in the 2012 referendum, would that have made its creation legitimate? Is it democratic to have a referendum in part of a country on a policy which has serious implications for the rest of the country if the rest of the country cannot vote in the referendum? Patently it is not.
The effect of the proposed devolution to Manchester would be to set public provision in the Manchester city region at odds with at the least much of Lancashire, parts of Cheshire and Derbyshire plus the West Riding of Yorkshire. For example, Manchester could make a mess of their NHS administration with their medical provision reduced in consequence and patients from Manchester seeking better NHS treatment elsewhere. This would take money from the Manchester NHS and place pressure on NHS services outside of Manchester as they catered for people from Manchester. Alternatively, Greater Manchester might be able to improve their health services and begin to draw in patients from outside the city region, reducing the public money other NHS authorities receive and driving down the quality and scope of their services.
A single city region having the powers that Manchester are going to have will be disruptive to the area close to it, but If other city regions follow suit – and it is clear that the new Tory government intends this to happen – the Balkanisation of England will proceed apace, with city region being set against city region and the city regions being pitted against the remnants of England outside the city regions.
Nor is it clear that the first candidate city regions would be evenly spread around the country. The cities which like Manchester rejected an elected mayor in 2012 were Birmingham, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield, Coventry, Leeds and Bradford. Having been chosen to vote for an elected mayor It is reasonable to presume that these would be the cities which would be at the front of the queue for city region status. They are all either in the North or Central Midlands of England. Even in those areas there would be massive gaps, for example, all four Yorkshire cities (Sheffield, Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford) are in the West Riding. The most southerly one (Birmingham) is 170 odd miles from the South Coast.
There may of course be other city region candidates , but it is difficult to see how such a policy could be rolled out across the country simply because there are substantial areas of England without very large cities or towns. In fact, south of Birmingham there are precious few large towns and cities (London being a law to itself) which could form a city region in the manner of that proposed for Manchester. The only Englsh cities south of Birmingham which have a population of more than 250,000 are Bristol and Plymouth. Hence, it is inevitable that England would be reduced to a patchwork of competing authorities with different policies on vitally important issues such as healthcare and housing.
The idea of giving powers to city regions stems from the imbalance in the devolution settlement which leaves England, alone of the four home countries, out in the cold without a national political voice. It is a cynical and shabby political fix for a problem which will not go away but may be submerged for the length of a Parliament through a pretence of increasing local democracy in England. Anyone who doubts this should ask themselves this question, if devolving power to the local level is so desirable why do Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland show no appetite for it? The answer is that their politicians recognise that to do so would weaken both the political clout of their countries and deprive their electors of a focus of national pride and loyalty.
There is also an EU dimension to this. The EU welcome anything which weakens national unity, and there is no better way of doing that than the time honoured practice of divide and rule. That is precisely what Balkanising England through creating regional centres of political power will do. The EU will seek to use city regions (or any other local authority with serious powers) to emasculate the Westminster government by attempting to deal directly with the city regions rather than Westminster and using the fact of the increased local powers to justify bypassing Westminster.
Once political structures such as the city regions are established it will become very difficult to get rid of them because the national political class is weakened by the removal of powers from central government and the new local political power bases develop their own powerful political classes. If the Tories or any other government – both Labour and the LibDems have bought into the localism agenda – succeed in establishing city regions or any other form of devolution in England it will be the devil’s own job to reverse the process of Balkanising England. That is why it is vitally important to either stop the establishment of serious powers being given to local authorities or to put a barrier in the shape of an English Parliament between Brussels and the English devolved localities.