Why I’m opposed to single-authority directly-elected mayors

Paula Barker
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

Long before entering parliament, my opposition to single-authority directly-elected mayors has been consistent, and my views have not changed since being elected in 2019. Indeed, it is also a position of my trade union, UNISON, which has formally outlined its opposition to DEMs on several occasions at conferences.

The pandemic has shown the potential and urgent need for effective devolution. I am a fervent believer in devolution and believe the two main political parties still have some way to go in answering the ‘English question’ – and it must be answered because the status quo cannot hold. 

There will be many differing opinions on the root causes of the problems that have besieged the City of Liverpool in recent times – problems that have brought a bounty of headlines, column inches and TV commentary. There has been no shortage, too, of commentary from the people of Liverpool, who are rightfully angry that we have ended up in this place.

I do not seek to add to the discourse on personnel, individuals or any alleged wrongdoing today beyond a critique of the governance model and why it needs to go, particularly in the case of Liverpool but not exclusively to it. I am not saying the problems in Liverpool would have been avoided if the model of governance were different (Tory-controlled Lancashire County Council being a case in point), but I remain convinced that the model and the cultural problems it inherently brings added to them. 

The more traditional leader-cabinet model affords strong leadership. However, DEMs inject steroids into the idea of ‘strong leadership’ with the absolute concentration of executive power in one person and their office. Even the power and influence of cabinet is greatly diminished.

A more collegiate and collective way of creating policy and implementing it leads to better outcomes. With a leader-cabinet, a council can avoid ever greater delegated authority to senior officers in and around the mayor, entrusting cabinet members to truly shape their briefs. Even for the most superhuman of mayors, there are only so many hours in the day. 

It is argued that the role itself affords more effective governance because decisions can be made more quickly, bypassing the cogs of political bureaucracy. This is fundamentally unhealthy. The move away from the old committee style of governance in local government (which still has virtues) under the last Labour government sought to deal with ‘slow’ decision making at a local level. 

Under the current arrangements for single-authority DEMs, councillors are relegated to bystanders to the decisions taken by the mayor and unable to provide the scrutiny that is required. Full council meetings, aside from February’s budget meeting, are turned into pantomimes that hold no real value aside from the theatre of political jousting between the parties. It should be also noted there exists no mechanism for recall of a DEM from the public under the current English model, nor can a single authority DEM be shifted by a group wanting to go in a different political direction.

It is asserted that the higher profile of a mayor, as opposed to a council leader, provides two huge benefits as a direct consequence of the model: a greater incentive for investment, and greater visibility in the eyes of the public. Such cults of personality should be rejected. On both points, investment and public visibility, one must only look down the M62 to Manchester City Council where neither are in short supply for Sir Richard. Liverpool is, in my biased opinion, the greatest of cities, so it’s absurd to claim that the city would somehow lose out if we did not retain the office of mayor.

The concept of single-authority DEMs is one revived by the previous Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, drawing inspiration from the last Labour government despite the idea often being defeated at local referendum in the early 2000s. Yes, Labour needs to consistently make the case for proper devolution, but single-authority directly-elected mayors draw power up from down below rather than away from Whitehall and into our communities. 

Some colleagues on the Labour left, despite the historical roots of single-authority DEMs, offer the paltry defence of the model as being more democratic because (once in a blue moon) members take part in a one-member-one-vote election where there is a vacancy rather than a Labour group election behind closed doors. Accountability is a key tenant of democracy – and under this system, there is none. We are setting the bar pretty low if we are to say accountability is restricted to the binary choice of a trigger ballot once every four years.

Whoever wins the selection to be Liverpool Labour’s candidate for mayor – and they both deserve our unwavering support – they should be heading into election on a pledge to deliver a public referendum on our city’s model of governance. If presented the opportunity, I am confident that the people of Liverpool will confidently express a desire for change.

Everything Labour.
Every weekday morning.

By clicking ‘subscribe’ you confirm you have read and agree to our privacy policy

More from LabourList