No one made the case for elected mayors

The government did almost nothing to sell the idea to voters.

This afternoon Michael Fallon and Ed Balls were on Radio 5, discussing the local election results. After a bit of Punch and Judy stuff, Balls was asked about the underwhelming demand for elected mayors. His response was, in tribal terms, a bit of a blinder: “David Cameron said it would mean Borises up and down the country - the country has said no.”
 
Boom. Acknowledge, bridge, communicate. ABC. No PR team could have scripted it better. Fallon, for his part, shrugged his shoulders. Nowt to do with me, guv: “We wanted to allow cities to choose. We've got to look at these results but it was entirely the cities' right to choose.” Well, the thing is, these cities didn’t choose. Not really. Only 15 per cent of people in Nottingham – which rejected the idea – cast a vote on the issue. But then many MPs are somewhat taciturn on the issue of voter apathy. Gets in the way of all the point scoring, which of course we voters love.
 
Whatever you think about elected mayors – and maybe you agree with a fellow journalist who today told me that not voting for them is a vote “against populism and egoism” – the biggest shame to come out of this initiative is that it has singularly failed to grab the public’s imagination. The campaign was doomed from the start. We’re not happy with our politicians at the moment – and I hardly need to go into all the reasons why – so it’s not surprising voters didn’t fancy creating yet more. Then you had the problem of who was actually going to champion them. 
 
Local party activists? Fat chance. Most of them like the status quo – not least local councillors. After all, at the moment a council leader can be king of the hill off the back of a couple dozen votes from the other councillors and enough from the public to get them elected in the first place; which given the amount of people who care about local politics in Britain, isn’t a lot. So the local political classes pulled together. They made ludicrous claims about the salaries these characters would coin in, all the while pushing Whitehall hard to get more powers for themselves.
 
As Stuart Drummond, the Mayor of Hartlepool, also said on Friday, the government has been incredibly half-arsed about the whole thing. According to him, the Department for Communities and Local Government hadn’t consulted with current incumbents about the system, despite years of lobbying, nor done much selling of the idea. The end result was that no one really knew what they were voting for. So they either said no, or didn't. It’s hard to say whether Whitehall didn’t like the idea, thought it was more trouble than it was worth, simply messed up, or all three.
 
As you may have guessed, I do like this idea. We need growth and jobs, especially outside of London, and a central figure around which the business community can congregate and who can sell the town to investors is valuable, as long as he or she knows what they're doing. Councils, by and large, aren’t too bad at providing basic services – but this side of things is something with which they often struggle. If you want to find out more, have a read about the work Ray Mallon’s been doing in Middlesbrough over the last ten years.
 
But this isn't really the point. It doesn’t matter which side you take on the debate: it matters more that the debate didn’t happen at all.
 
Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.
Birmingham was one of nine cities to vote against having a directly-elected mayor. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue