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.