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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle