For 2016, we should be debating different structures, not different personalities

Andrew Fisher

On May 3rd voters across England, Wales and Scotland rejected the policies of austerity. In nine English cities voters also rejected the personality politics of mayoral systems.

Tony Benn said that politics “should be about policies not personalities” and I expect most party members agree.

Many Labour members, councillors and affiliates were in the forefront of the ‘no’ campaigns – not least in Newcastle where the Northern TUC voted to oppose the mayoral system for Newcastle. In Leeds, prominent Labour members, including sitting and retired MPs, and trade unions campaigned for a no vote.

The low turnout is testament to how many Londoners were fed up with the trivialised media campaign for the London mayoralty – as an advert for someone in Sheffield or Nottingham it must have sealed the ‘no’ vote decisively. Of the ten English cities deciding whether to switch to the mayoral system, only one voted in favour (Bristol 53% to 47% on a 25% turnout).

Much has been written about Ken in the aftermath of his narrow defeat, but one thing is clear: Ken’s policies in 2012 were ambitious, innovative and firmly rooted in Labour’s principles: cutting extortionate fares, re-establishing a London-wide educational maintenance allowance and tackling rip-off rents.

The problem is that all of this got lost beneath the X-Factor tribulations of Boris v Ken and their numerous ego clashes in debate after debacle.

The back of our party membership cards states, “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”. All the slogans of the labour movement tell us the same thing, ‘together we’re stronger’, ‘unity is strength’, ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. So why then should Labour activists support the individualist city boss structure that completely undermines those principles.

As Labour members, and therefore democratic socialists, we should also be concerned about the undemocratic nature of mayoral systems – in which an elected mayor can appoint deputies with more powers than local councillors or, in London’s case, assembly members.

Labour’s team on the London Assembly is the largest party group – which goes to show that we won on policies, not personalities – and it contains many capable people. It is a shame then that they will have little power and even less profile.

We must look to the future and consider not whether Alan Sugar or Eddie Izzard could beat Boris (I’d pick the comedian over the joke), but what system of government we want.

For inspiration we should look back to the crucible which forged young Ken – the Greater London Council (GLC) – and restore the council cabinet system in the Assembly, giving power and responsibility to a Labour team, while allowing it to elect its leader. Ken’s GLC days also prove that the mayoral system is not the only way of giving a city higher profile behind a publicly-recognisable leader.

Nye Bevan once asked, “how can wealth persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power?” In London in 2012 it was by standing a policy-free and apparently amiable buffoon.

For 2016, we should be debating different structures, not different personalities.

Andrew Fisher is joint national secretary of the Labour Representation Committee

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