‘The locals underlined the weaknesses of the mayoral model. But Labour can fix it’

John Denham
Labour MP Liam Byrne with West Midlands mayor candidate Richard Parker. Photo: Liam Bynre

Eight weeks ago, I warned of “huge embarrassment” if the party did not sweep the mayoral board. Richard Parker’s nail-biting win in the West Midlands and David Skaith’s triumph in Rishi Sunak’s Yorkshire avoided the worst case, but losing to Tees Valley’s controversial mayor where we dominate local government and must win many MPs remains a concern.

The election campaigns and the results underlined problems with the current mayoral model. There is the potential for a serious mismatch between the politics of the mayor and the wider local politics. In “low-turnout elections that few voters really care about”, there will always be potential for surprises triggered by discontent with the government or other factors: this time it was Gaza, but there will always be contingent issues. Both make Labour mayors look vulnerable under a Labour government.

Most commentary has stressed how mayors now burnish their personal brands. We would have struggled to identify Andy Street as a Tory from his West Midlands campaign.

For advocates of mayors, this is the whole point. They want to foster charismatic individuals with only loose party affiliations. Direct elections create their own mandate, one that insulates them from party performance at local and national level. Whitehall ministers and civil servants need only negotiate with one person, not elected local authorities. Mayors can be empowered in ways that enable them, at worst, to marginalise local authorities that have far more responsibility for the lives of local people.

Labour has promised to “turbocharge” mayors, implying that this will be the key layer of local government for investment.  (Labour will apparently now have to ‘turbocharge’ Ben Houchen despite the controversy around the disposal of public assets.) The aim of mayors has always been to take the local out of local government and the politics out of local elections. That, surely, is not what Labour wants?

Mayors must be well-integrated with local councils’ leadership

Effective devolution cannot rely on empowered individuals, however charismatic and able. Reshaping a city region, rural county or mix of the two needs a deep, locally-rooted, democratic culture.

Labour’s devolution must foster an environment in which politicians at every level of local government, together with the communities they represent, share a sense of local identity and purpose. Of course, there will be disagreement about how, and local politics will always be pluralistic, but shared aspirations will be key.

In other words, the mayoral leadership of combined authorities must be well-integrated with the leadership of local councils and local communities and aligned with them. The independence of mayors stressed by their advocates, which is designed to bypass local councils and local elections, can undermine that effort. 

Labour’s mayors in the North West and Yorkshire have rightly been seen as a success. As far as we can see, they largely foster and enjoy good relationships with their largely Labour-controlled councils.

This doesn’t happen everywhere. Not all the mayors in place before last Thursday enjoyed good relationships with all their local authorities. Andy Street certainly didn’t – four councils had publicly clashed with him just a few weeks before. Skaith and Claire Ward, the newly-elected mayor for the East Midland CA, face the challenge of finding common ground with some robust Conservative council leaders.

The power and autonomy of mayors is frequently overestimated

The current power and autonomy of mayors is frequently overestimated by casual observers. Andy Burnham showed skill and determination to drive through regulation of Manchester’s buses, but he relied on being given the right to do so by Conservative ministers.

His budget – heavily dependent on grants made by and dependent on Whitehall – is dwarfed by the budgets of the ten local authorities that make up the Greater Manchester combined authority. We neglect the importance of our cash-strapped councils at our peril, and the relationship between them and their mayors is crucial.

The last Labour government legislated for combined authorities. It would complete our vision to see them cover the whole of England. The impetus for them came from local councils who saw the need to pool their powers on issues like economic development that must operate over a much wider geography.

Many only reluctantly embraced mayors as the way to get the limited powers of a devolution ‘deal’. (Even those who most loudly celebrate mayors as a democratic innovation often concede that the public would often reject them in referenda.)

Labour should acknowledge mayors aren’t right for every area

Labour can tackle these weaknesses in the mayoral model. As the Society of Labour Lawyers recently proposed, local authorities and combined authorities could have statutory and constitutional status, gaining powers and resources as of right, not as concessions from Whitehall.

With the emphasis back on local authorities working together, combined authorities would own their powers. Mayors would become sub-regional leaders and advocates, not power brokers with Whitehall. Maverick mayors and political clashes might still happen but would be less damaging.

With a clear framework for devolved powers, the political logic that incentivises mayors to promote their own role and power would be diminished. Mayors would need to be seen as advocates for all local government systems in their area, including the services that are not mayoral responsibilities.

Where mayors work and are popular they should be retained. But Labour should acknowledge that they are not right for everywhere and let combined authorities – or dare we say it, the people – decide if they want one.

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