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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.