Wednesday, 20 January 2021

The mistaken belief that Bristol has a spare mayor

In elections currently scheduled for May, but likely to be postponed, voters in Bristol will be casting their ballots for both a directly-elected City Mayor and a directly-elected West of England Metro Mayor. Perhaps we should also acknowledge that the city also has a ceremonial Lord Mayor, but that is not a role I intend to discuss in this blogpost.

Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are contesting the City Mayoral election on a platform to abolish the role. They are mistaken to do so. 

The reasons put forward are that it is unnecessary role with a Metro Mayor, that is is expensive and, most strangely, that it is undemocratic. As with Liverpool, there is a bit of a confusing picture with both a City Mayor and a Metro Mayor. It is not a tidy arrangement built as it is on two different generations of decentralisation to cities.

While the job titles are similar, the remit of the two roles is distinctly different with the only overlap coming in the soft power role of a Mayor as a figurehead to drive change and build the city's profile beyond its borders.

To simply do away with the Bristol City Mayor would be to return the powers they have to a cabinet system of council. Such models are commonplace but that does not make them an effective or efficient way of running a city.

I noted above that the strangest argument put forward was that a directly-elected City Mayor is undemocratic. I do realise that states which use the term 'democratic' in their official name often fail to live up to it, but in this instance the words directly-elected are the obvious indication that a City Mayor is a very democratic role. 

To be Mayor of a city such as Bristol requires the candidate to have reached out to voters across the tribal political divisions of party politics. It forces them to listen to voices from right across the city. The most important audience to a directly elected City Mayor is the city at large.

In comparison a Council Leader in a cabinet system model of local government needs only win their council ward and then the support of 50%+1 of their council colleagues. This creates a tendency to entrench partisanship. The vast majority of the city never casts a vote for or against the Council Leader. The most important audience to a wannabe Council Leader is their own party colleagues.

Thus what the Conservatives and Lib Dems are asking the voters of Bristol to do is to revert to a less democratic model. A trait which one would not ordinarily associate with the values of either party. The arguments put forward are a populist bid to garner a few more votes in a contest that neither party is likely to win. I can see the short-term appeal of scrapping the Mayor. I can appreciate that any candidate who stands on a platform of saving taxpayers money by doing themselves out of a job is going to hold some appeal. I think the catchphrase 'spare Mayor' is a good bit of marketing. A sound democratic model should not be sacrificed for any of those reasons.

If there is a real desire to roll the City Mayoralty into the Metro Mayoralty then the conversation should be about executive powers and responsibility, not about similar sounding job titles.