What if December 12th were repeated in the May mayorals?

Chris Game

I’m not unrealistic.  I didn’t expect the Queen in the few hundred words written for her Queen’s Speech to chatter on that much about local government and councils – and she didn’t.  I did think, though, they might get some attention in the 150-page Background Briefing Notes.  But, no.  In the literally brief note on English Devolution (pp.109-10), ‘councils’ per se aren’t mentioned.  The search did, however, make me realise how crowded it’s going to be out there, as “each part of the country” gets “to decide its own destiny”.

The Government “remains committed” to the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, Western Gateway, and, I think, the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. The 38 Local Enterprise Partnerships certainly aren’t going anywhere soon.  Indeed, they may well be hoping to get their hands on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU Structural and Investment Funds. And quite possibly too on the PM’s own £3.6 billion Towns Fund, with, for starters, 100 Town Deal Boards, chaired “where appropriate” by someone from the private sector.

Then there are the UK Government agencies that Johnson wants to relocate out of London, with their existing civil servants or any who aren’t “super-talented weirdo” enough to pass the Dominic Cummings test.

The one democratic element of this increasingly crowded world that does receive more than a passing mention in the Briefing Notes are Mayoral Combined Authorities (CAs) and City Region Mayors, with talk of increasing the number of mayors and doing more devo deals. There weren’t many stats in this section, but one did catch my eye: “37 per cent of residents in England, including almost 50 per cent in the North, are now served by city region mayors with powers and money to prioritise local issues.”

With CA mayoral elections coming up in early May, I did a few quick sums. The current party split among the nine elected mayors, including London, is 5-4 to Labour.  The population split, though, is close to 3-1, with Mayor Andy Street’s West Midlands contributing over half the Conservative total.  And Street’s victory over Labour’s Siôn Simon in May 2017 was knife-edge: by 0.7% of the 523,000 votes cast.

I sense you’re ahead of me.  If, in the coming May elections, West Midlands voters were to return a Labour mayor, leaving Conservative mayors governing, say, barely one in eight of that 37% of residents, would a Conservative PM still be as enthusiastic about devolution to mayoral CAs?  We know for near-certain that Theresa May wouldn’t have been, but Johnson, as on most things, is less predictable. 

Anyway, it seemed worth asking: what would happen in the May mayoral elections, which include London this time, if everyone voted just as they did in December’s General Election?  Happily, Centre for Cities’ Simon Jeffrey got there first, so the stats are his, the interpretation mine.

First, though, a quick reminder of the broader context of those 2017 mayoral elections, and what’s happened since.  When Andy Street launched his bid for the West Midlands mayoralty, and even when he was officially selected as Conservative candidate, there looked like being only five of these new CA mayors.

Moreover, all five – Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield City Regions, Tees Valley, and West Midlands – might easily, given their borough councils’ political make-ups, have produced Labour ‘metro mayors’.  Whereupon, it seems likely that, to say the least, Prime Ministerial enthusiasm for serious devolution to metro mayoral CAs would have waned somewhat.

However, things changed. Sheffield’s election, following a dispute over the inclusion of Derbyshire local authorities, was postponed until 2018, and two far less metropolitan (and more Conservative-inclined) CAs were established – West of England (Bristol) and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – just in time for the 2017 elections. 

With Tees Valley also going Conservative, Prime Minister May saw an initially possible 0-5 redwash turn into a remarkable 4-2 triumph – as reported on this blog. The political merits and possibilities of devolution, particularly to the West Midlands – bearing in mind that Labour overwhelmingly controlled Birmingham Council and formed the largest party group in five of the other six boroughs – suddenly seemed much more obvious.

Since then, though, the pendulum has swung. A reconfigured Sheffield CA and new North of Tyne CA have both elected Labour mayors, evening up the CA party balance at 4-4, but giving a score among the now ‘Big 5’ metros (populations over 1.3 million) of 4-1 to Labour, including Greater London Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Jeffrey’s sums show that Mayor Khan would be re-elected easily, likewise Labour’s Steve Rotheram in Liverpool.  In Greater Manchester, Labour’s Andy Burnham would be re-elected, but with a considerably reduced majority.  And the collapsing ‘red wall’ would have more than doubled Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen’s majority in Tees Valley.

And so to the West Midlands, which also saw plenty of “Red wall turning blue”, “No such thing any more as a Labour safe seat” headlines. It felt as if the Conservative vote had to be ahead, and it was … but by under 3,000 out of 1.18 million, or 0.2%! 

Yes, even replicating the Conservatives’ most decisive electoral win for a generation, it could be that tight.  And, if it were Labour’s eventual candidate who edged it, that would see Labour metro mayors as the elected heads of government in London and all four largest city region CAs, representing nearly a third of the English population. ‘Everything still to play for’ seems an understatement.

Chris Game - picChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The local and mayoral elections – and the significance of that 4-2 scoreline

Chris Game

Local elections present the INLOGOV blog with an annual dilemma. They’re the heartbeat of democratic local government, its lifeblood, or something equally vital. So, they must be covered and key results namechecked. But INLOGOV’s not a news service, and, with so many Friday counts nowadays and results instantly available on social media, you have somehow to strike a balance.

The first part of this blog, therefore, will give the headlines, from a strictly local government perspective. That means, first, changes in council control; second, changes in councillor numbers; and third, excluding one minor indulgence, no conjecturing whatever about implications for that other election.

Conservatives, of course, were the big winners, almost everywhere. So, to be perverse, we’ll start with a titbit of consolatory Labour news, from the seven unitary polls. Durham it still controls, and Northumberland – thanks to the Conservative candidate in the potentially decisive ward literally picking the short straw – stays technically hung, though no longer under Labour minority control. After mass gains from particularly Independents, Conservatives are the largest party in Cornwall and back in control in the Isle of Wight.

Of the 27 non-metropolitan counties, even before last Thursday Labour had majority control in only Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and shared minority control in Cumbria and Lancashire. Conservatives are now in control of the first and last of these and are easily the largest party in the other two. Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and Warwickshire all swung from minority to majority Conservative control.

As was widely, and even gleefully, reported, UKIP too lost heavily, its single gain in Lancashire being rather more than counterbalanced by at least double-figure losses in Cambridgeshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and West Sussex.

Turning to overall councillor numbers, the Conservatives gained what for a party in national government was an almost mind-boggling 563 seats: 319 in England, 164 in Scotland, far more than doubling their previous representation, and 80 in Wales – the latter, according to more knowledgeable commentators than I, putting the party on course (in that election I’m not mentioning) for its first nationwide Welsh victory since the Earl of Derby managed it in 1859.

Labour’s car crash involved losing net 382 councillors – bringing to 15 years the period since, in terms of councillor numbers, it was the largest party in GB local government – UKIP 145, and the Liberal Democrats what must have been a deeply dispiriting 42.

And so to what, for the immediate future of at least England’s sub-national government, were surely last week’s most important elections, and collectively way up there amongst the most mind-boggling: those of our first(?) six metro mayors. I can hardly imagine the odds you could have got, even a week ago, on four of the six being Conservative. However, it’s there in my table, in blue and pink. And, whatever one’s reservations about elected mayors and the whole limited, top-down, Treasury-driven, fiscally minimal devolution model, I’d suggest that nothing over the past 11 months has given it a greater boost.


The first several months of May’s premiership she spent almost visibly dithering over what to do about the severed agenda of devo deals and elected mayors she’d inherited from the axed George Osborne and shuffled ex-Communities Secretary, Greg Clark. Then – I simplify enormously – two things happened.

First, Andy Street decided he’d stop being MD of the John Lewis Partnership and run as a Conservative for the biggest and politically most attractive metro mayoralty of all, the West Mids – in time to be adopted, and then paraded with May at the party’s October Birmingham conference.

At the same time, something else helped change her view that one big reason why metro mayors were a bad idea was that most, if not all, would be Labour. Several of Clark’s nine envisaged metro-mayoral city regions, during the May-created devo vacuum, started for various reasons to lose interest or patience and drop out – West Yorkshire, Sheffield City Region, the North East – and the political arithmetic began to alter. To the extent that I suggested she could realistically conceive of the first set of mayoral elections producing three Conservative and three Labour mayors. Even for the sake of an eye-catching headline, though, I’d never have contemplated 4-2.

And, as the table shows, three of the four results, after the two counts involved in the Supplementary Vote (SV) electoral system, were extremely close. Street’s majority was exceptionally so – 0.71979% of over half a million votes cast, to be precise. This in itself would weaken any victor’s mandate, particularly when achieved in what, by the standards of anything other than Police and Crime Commissioner ballots, were very low-turnout elections.

The SV system was adopted for mayoral elections almost by accident, and many consider that the more familiar Alternative Vote – that we rejected for parliamentary elections in the 2011 referendum – would be fitter for this particular purpose. Its defenders, though, claim it has worked well in London, is voter-friendly, produces clear winners, and is accepted by all concerned.

My table would suggest otherwise, at least on its first showing. In the West Midlands, in a hugely significant election decided by well under 4,000 votes, over 40,000 votes that might have contributed to the result didn’t do so. They were either not used at all, or were cast for candidates who, highly predictably in this instance, had already been eliminated after the first count.

It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that large numbers even of the small minority who turned out didn’t fully comprehend the system they were voting in – for which the Electoral Commission must be held chiefly responsible. As also for the huge disparities in candidate expenditure permitted before the ‘regulated’ campaign period, which again in such a closely run race can and will be alleged to have been decisive. In short, the Commission, as well as the mayors themselves, have plenty of work to do in what is only a three-year term to 2020.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The metro mayoral dilemma: how to big-up without overselling

Chris Game

Well, that was fun – the Daily Mail’s high-speed impression of the Grand Old Duke of York. In Monday’s first edition we were marched to the top of the hill, to glimpse a vista of a snap May 4th General Election, a Prime Ministerial Brexit mandate, and a three-figure Conservative Commons majority stretching way into the distance. And by the lunchtime edition we’d been marched down again, accompanied by much harrumphing about unfounded rumour-mongering.

With not calling an early election being among the few subjects on which Theresa May has been utterly consistent, the surprise would have been if she had. And my sole reason for raising it here is that, whatever its macro-political effects, a synchronous General Election would have significantly increased the likely turnout in the six metro mayoral elections, and consequently enhanced the profile, legitimacy and general political clout of both the new office and its first incumbents – all currently at a premium.

In the metropolitan West Midlands, then, we’re not going to see on May 4th the probably 60-65% turnout that was the 2015 General Election figure. That would have enabled the new mayor, in his or her meetings with ministers, to claim to be representing not only nearly 2 million electors, but perhaps 1 million who had actually participated in their election. Which in turn would make it that smidgen harder for the centre to cut local funding and resist further devolution, rationalising that few vote for and therefore care about their local government.

But now that’s off, what can we expect? A former student asked me recently – more or less a true story! – what the average turnout had been in all mayoral elections since Ken Livingstone’s first election as London Mayor in 2000. 38.7%, I told him, or thereabouts. He was surprised – and less by the confirmation that I was indeed one of those seriously sad people who know such things than by the figure itself. And of course he was right to be.

He fancied putting a bet (in the low-20s) on the percentage turnout on May 4th, when in the four metropolitan and unitary Combined Authorities (CAs) – West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, and Tees Valley – there are no other significant elections taking place. This year in the electoral cycle is shire county year, which should boost the mayoral turnout a bit in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and West of England, but won’t help the others.


If only I’d had my table with me, I could have shown my ex-student how that overall 38.7% masked the relatively respectable turnouts when mayoral polls had coincided with other elections, and particularly a so-called ‘first-order’ national (General) election, when voters reckon considerably more is at stake.

But when ‘only’ a mayoralty has been the prize – merely the elected political leadership of one’s city, town or borough – turnouts have been almost unexceptionally feeble. And those have been in established local authorities, familiar to electors, rather than new, huge, amorphous, unelected bodies that most voters have barely heard of.

And the situation gets worse. Most voters with at least some awareness of metro mayors fondly imagine these new politicians foisted upon us will have powers to do the things that we think are most urgent and would like them to do. Tough!

In last May’s Centre for Cities/ComRes poll – still the most comprehensive on metro mayors – of the five issues West Midlands respondents felt should be the priorities for politicians in their city, only one, housing, was something that would be among the responsibilities devolved either to a West Midlands metro mayor or even the Combined Authority.


Aspects of health and social care, education, and emergency services may possibly be devolved in the future. But on May 5th most of the mayor’s attention will go to business support and inward investment, transport, and colleges and adult skills that only about one in 20 possible voters have as their priorities.

It’s a big disjunction and on the face of it a recipe for yet further voter disillusionment. And a major dilemma for those who genuinely believe that elected mayors represent the best chance we’re likely to have of decentralising serious power to England’s localities and regions: how to ‘big-up’ the potential of metro mayors without misrepresenting and overselling them.

I have neither the answer nor much space, but I was struck this week by the Institute for Government’s latest ‘Local Leadership event’ – ‘How will new mayors work with Whitehall to improve their city-regions?’, and particularly the encapsulation of the IfG’s mayoral case by its Director of Development, Dr Jo Casebourne.

Emphasise, she suggested, these mayors’ difference from either existing or previously rejected mayors; that they’re leaders of place – of functional economic areas, not councils; able to provide visible, legitimate and accountable leadership and wield ‘soft power’, with better access to ministers and to other public sector bodies across their regions; and outward-looking and future-focused, able to attract inward investment and, working with other mayors, to secure, as in London, more devolved powers, both functional and financial, in the future.


Chris Game - pic


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Learning by Doing in Combined Authorities

Maximilian Lempriere

At a workshop hosted in early November by INLOGOV, City-REDI and The Public Services Academy at the University of Birmingham practitioners and academics from the world of local government came together to share experiences on the current Combined Authorities and city-region devolution agenda. In the third of a series of posts Max Lempriere, a doctoral researcher studying the formation of combined authorities, reflects on the days major talking points. 

 Policy makers may dislike ambiguity and flexibility, but devolution to Combined Authorities brings with it a fair degree of both. There are so many questions that will only be answered as the result of experience and so many variations in configuration, governance and circumstances between Combined Authorities that no progress could be made without it.  The ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘when’ is up for negotiation on a localised basis, bringing both benefits and pitfalls. The question is, then, how can we ensure that we maximise the benefits but avoid the pitfalls?

The precise answer to that question is unknown – a pitfall in itself – but leaders in all Combined Authorities need to be willing to look, listen and learn from their own experience and that of others if they are to strike the right balance. Combined Authority leaders need to be willing and able to share and learn from best practice, whether internal or external.

When looking to other Combined Authorities they must remain sensitive to local contexts. Compare those in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, for example. The latter has historic, clearly defined and coterminous economic and political geographies that lend themselves well to the Combined Authority model, whereas the former has a less clearly defined economic geography and lacks congruence when it comes to political geography. Learning to co-ordinate, collaborate and muddle-through across Combined Authorities is no easy task when there are such differences between them, especially if the implications of actions aren’t immediately clear. Their innovative nature and the variety of contexts in which they are found means that any initial institutional design will only ever be ‘good-enough’.

As a result there will have to be a fair degree of ‘learning by doing’, where the formal and informal rules of the game emerge as decision makers tackle different  challenges and obstacles.

However, precise institutional arrangements, devolved powers and funding responsibilities differ from one Combined Authority to another, reflecting as they do local economic and political geographies. The Mayor in Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, for example, will have more powers over housing that their counterpart in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, in another example, is currently the only Combined Authority to have autonomy over its £6bn share of NHS spending. Understanding common ground for mutual learning will therefore be difficult because it doesn’t just require political and managerial leaders to think in terms of what works but – perhaps more importantly –  what doesn’t work when translated into different  contexts. The danger, as increasingly seems to be the case, is that Combined Authorities look at what the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is doing well and try emulate that.

This kind of learning doesn’t just need to occur within or between Combined Authorities themselves. Central government must be willing and able to learn from experience on the ground, whilst remaining sensitive to local contexts. Learning from past Combined Authority successes and failures should feed not just into designs for future authorities but should form the basis of continuous, on-going institutional reform – a similar process of ‘muddling through’ and respecting ‘good-enough’ design – to fine-tune existing devolution arrangements to ensure maximum public and added value. Central Government has certainly showed a willingness to look, listen and learn itself in the case of the GMCA – shown in ongoing rounds of devolution deals, the latest of which was announced in the Chancellor’s Autumn Spending Review in November 2015. The challenge is to make sure it does so with other Combined Authorities in a way that respects their successes and failures on their own merits and avoids using the GMCA as a ‘yard-stick’ against which to judge.

An effective way to encourage these kind of local and multi-level learning processes is to incorporate them into the institutional design in the first instance. Formal arrangements to encourage inter and intra-institutional feedback – whether through scrutiny arrangements, joint workshops or regular meetings of officials – can play a crucial role in facilitating feedback and fostering a culture that encourages learning, experimentation and innovation.

But how to overcome the challenges of learning across differing contexts and geographies? Part of the work that INLOGOV, City-REDI and others have been doing is directed towards understanding both the successes and the difficulties experienced by Combined Authorities with a sensitivity to local contexts. Academic insight and the application of theory to practice have potentially crucial roles in cross-border learning of this kind. Situating information-providers and independent assessors within the institutional arrangement will allow decision makers to see more clearly points of mutual comparison.

Practitioners should be willing to learn, be sensitive to what is and isn’t possible in different contexts and embrace ambiguity. Combined Authorities are flexible and incomplete. How we work towards completeness depends on our willingness to learn from mistakes, appreciate best practice and recognise that it may not always be the best idea to copy Manchester.

This series of workshops is being supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and is led by Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV and SOLACE’s Research Facilitator for Local Government.


Max Lempriere is a final year PhD researcher at the Institute for Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include institutional design, local government policy making, devolution, urban planning and sustainable development.

Skills? What Skills!

Maximilian Lempriere

At a workshop hosted in early November by City-REDI, INLOGOV,The Public Services Academy at the University of Birmingham practitioners and academics from the world of local government came together to share experiences on the current Combined Authorities and city-region devolution agenda. In the second of a series of posts Max Lempriere, a doctoral researcher studying the formation of combined authorities, reflects on the days major talking points.  This blog is also posted on  www.lgnk.org.

One recurring theme that stood out in our discussions on potential problems with establishing effective systems of leadership and governance for Combined Authorities and mayors was the integral role that the mayor needs to play to develop and maintain collective and collaborative models of leadership. Previously in this series of posts we saw that the mayor needs to tread carefully to neuter clashes of identity, but their skill-set needs to extend far wider.

First, they need diplomatic skills. They will need to tread a careful path between council Leaders and Chief Executives. Leaders in particular are used to having the last say over key policy and political decisions affecting their areas. It isn’t overly cynical therefore to expect that the arrival of a new (directly elected) kid on the block is bound to cause additional tensions. Many of the mayors will be ‘independents’ free of the constraints and pressures resulting from the need to balance conflicting views within the group and the council. Even if mayor and combined authority leaders represent the same political party this isn’t enough to guarantee congruence of visions and policies. If the mayor has a different vision to the existing Leaders members it is unclear how this tension will be reconciled.  Importantly, he or she will need to rely on the support of constituent council Leaders for approval of the budget, meaning that unless internal unity can be achieved the mayor may prove to be somewhat of a lame duck.

Second, they need a thick skin. Osborne’s idea is that mayors act as a single point of accountability for both local citizens and central government officials. The logic behind this is commendable, but it may leave the mayor between a rock and a hard place. Central government (and in particular the Treasury) has made it clear in the various devo-agreements that central oversight is built into the governance arrangements, so there may well be pressures for arms-length control of combined authorities through the mayor. Yet their allegiances lie with the combined authority; can they please both at once? Unlikely. Will this leave them open to criticism from either side? Probably.

Third, they need to be electable. Ultimately it is down to voters to decide whether or not to keep the mayor in a job, so they need to work hard to keep the public on board. Will this be possible? One danger is an expectations gap amongst voters, who misunderstand what falls inside and outside the mayor’s legislative remit. What’s more, the mayor as an institution doesn’t yet garner widespread public support, meaning that any attempted power-grabs are likely to be fiercely resisted. Similarly, it is likely that whenever the combined authority is seen to falter the mayor will be in the firing line, regardless of whether it was central government, Combined Authority members or the mayor themselves that are strictly to blame. The mayor is designed to be the accountable figurehead of the authority, but they should be careful not to oversell themselves or raise voter expectations. Without public support they lack legitimacy, without legitimacy the mayor cannot lead the combined authority and without effective leadership the combined authority is weakened.

The list goes on, but the point is simple: the mayor will have to foster internal political coherence, legitimize both themselves and the authority and be accountable both downwards and upwards. Quite how difficult these tasks will be to achieve depends on the particular power arrangements in place across different Combined Authorities and how much power has been given to elected-mayors. Nevertheless, if done right they can act as a strong figurehead for the new authorities, bringing together constituent members and powers to create something bigger than the sum of its parts and that is both resilient and durable over time. If done badly we could have a combined authority lacking in legitimacy, a vilified public figure that further disengages people away from politics and a prolonged exercise in blame shifting.

Because of the novelty of the metro-mayor and combined authority arrangements no one really knows what to expect. This could be perceived as a risk. Indeed in some areas, notably Yorkshire, disagreements at the outset over power sharing between the Combined Authority and Mayor have derailed plans.

However, it should also be seen as an opportunity. We should hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

This series of workshops is being supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and is led by Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV and SOLACE’s Research Facilitator for Local Government.



Max Lempriere is a final year PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include flexible institutional design, local government policy making, the politics of sustainable planning and construction and ecological modernisation.

Metro mayors: this time at least feels different from 2012

Chris Game

Despite what service users doubtless feel on occasions, things can move quite fast in local government. Four weeks ago (from when I’m typing this) many of us were anticipating a Labour-led government. Three weeks ago in these columns Daniel Goodwin reported George Osborne’s Manchester announcement that the Conservative Government’s Queen’s Speech would include a Cities Devolution Bill. In the actual Queen’s Speech, eight days ago, it was renamed – to general approval – the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill (CLGDB).  Six days ago the Bill was published, together with Explanatory Notes, and received its First Reading in the Lords. Next Monday it will be generally debated and receive its Second Reading.

It seemed a little remiss that since Daniel’s blog we’ve not posted even a comment on something that could bring the most significant power-shift in English government in generations, so I thought I’d give an airing to my thoughts on metro mayors. Which is fine, if you know where they fit into the CLGDB. But just in case, I’ll start with an albeit cumbersome one-sentence précis of what it thinks it’s about.

The Bill aims to boost growth and increase local government efficiency, by legislating to deliver the Greater Manchester Devolution Agreement and other future combined authority deals – in large cities which choose to have elected mayors, but in other places too [hence the Bill’s name change] – as part of a devolution strategy of moving powers out of Whitehall and building a Northern Powerhouse.

The rest of this blog is a slightly nerdy look at why most of these large cities don’t have elected mayors already. And my chance starting point is that the weekend before the Queen’s Speech I happened to read More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First, the manifesto-style book written by Steve Hilton and two Stanford University colleagues, and extensively plugged, reviewed, commended, and pompously rubbished over recent weeks.

Hilton is best known here as, from 2010 to 2012, David Cameron’s ‘blue-sky thinker’ and strategy adviser. His book is not about local government per se, but, as its title intimates, it contains much of interest, once you sift the perspicacities from the platitudes, to anyone sensing that our own local government scale and structures too often hinder rather than assist our instincts to behave more humanly/humanely.

As it happens, I enjoyed it, but its mention is mainly to enable me to quibble with its author. Specifically, I question Hilton’s accusation, in an interview with The Sunday Times’ Camilla Cavendish (May 17), that the Coalition’s failure in 2012 to introduce elected mayors to most of England’s biggest cities was due to the policy’s ‘sabotage’ by the Lib Dems in general and Nick Clegg in particular – rather than to, say, general ministerial neglect and incompetence.

Nowadays it’s Conservative policy to blame the Lib Dems for everything – including not winning enough seats to prevent the Government having to implement the nastier parts of its manifesto. But to hold their ex-leader responsible for voters in nine of 10 cities rejecting elected mayors amounts to rewriting history – highly relevant history too, for, as already noted, metro mayors are back in a big way.

Chancellor George Osborne has been commendably transparent and consistent about his enthusiasm for them. If a combined metropolitan authority, like the West Midlands, aspires to a “full suite of devolved powers” – city-wide responsibilities for transport, policing, economic development, health and social care, plus worthwhile fiscal discretion – the accountability price includes an elected metro-wide mayor who “takes the decisions and carries the can”.

Exactly which decisions will be in the mayor’s can and which in the combined authority can is still unspecified, though we may learn more in Monday’s debate. It is clear, though, and worth emphasising, that the very fact of devolved functions being divided between mayor and authority means that, to quote the House of Commons Library blog, “this is emphatically not the ‘London model’ of a strong elected mayor controlling city-wide public services” that enthusiasts would favour and detractors fear.

But mayors there will be, without any further referendums, because, ministers insist, it was all covered in a sentence on page 13 (lucky for some) of the Conservative manifesto: “We will devolve far-reaching powers … to large cities which choose to have elected mayors”.

Cities which choose – or, rather, cities whose leaders choose. Certainly for new combined authorities, there will be no imposition of mayors, which antagonised so many last time. Osborne’s challenge to existing city council leaders is simple: elected mayor = far-reaching powers; no elected mayor = no far-reaching powers. Your call.

This time, therefore, things really are different from 2012.  There’s a very senior minister – in fact, with Communities Secretary Greg Clark, two senior ministers – genuinely committed to devolution; the devolvable powers are more explicit, more realisable, and more substantial; and we’re talking not cities but city regions.

The fact remains, though, that this case would be far easier to make, certainly to the public, had not nearly a million city voters participated just three years ago in referendums that decisively rejected mayoral models of government.

So back to Steve Hilton, who, as strategy adviser, foresaw the difficulty. If there’s an iron law of referendum drafting, it’s to have your preference as the status quo – staying in the EU, retaining an up-and-running mayoral system – and as the positive Yes option.

“That’s why Michael Heseltine and I felt it important that people experience the difference a strong mayor could make before they were invited to take a view” (my emphasis). Fine – but now Hilton’s memory begins to fade.

“Both the 2010 Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement”, he claims, “pledged to introduce a mayor to the biggest cities and to let people vote later in a ‘confirmatory referendum’ (my emphasis). “The Lib Dems reneged on that deal.  When a question was asked in parliament, Clegg made clear there would be no mayors without referendums”.

Here, Hilton is WRONG, in almost every particular. There was no deal or publicly shared understanding, because the key phrase in both manifesto (p.76) and Coalition Agreement (p.12) was, presumably deliberately, left ambiguous: “We will create directly elected mayors … subject to confirmatory referendums …” (my emphasis).   Mayors first, or referendums – Hilton, and everyone else, could claim whichever they preferred.

Prior to the Localism Bill’s publication in December 2010, different (Conservative) ministers gave completely conflicting statements. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles reassured MPs: “Of course we will not [impose mayors]. That is completely out of the question” (col. 1117) – following which his Bill proposed doing precisely that.

As minister, Pickles would have powers under Section 9N of the Bill to order a council to create a ‘shadow mayor’ in 2011, and to operate a mayor/cabinet form of governance until it be confirmed or rejected in a 2012 referendum – in short, the Hilton/Heseltine formula.

The Lib Dems have never, as a party, liked mayors, but opposition to their apparent imposition on unconsulted local authorities was near-universal – through most of the local government world, all major parties in the Lords, and particularly the city councils directly affected. Shadow mayors were finally dropped from the Bill on the very first day’s debate of its Lords committee stage in June 2011, the announcement made not by Clegg, but Conservative local government minister Lady Hanham (col. 1062).

The following May, nine of the 10 ‘big city’ referendums rejected elected mayors by majorities ranging from Manchester’s 53%, through Birmingham’s 58%, to Sheffield’s 65%. The exception was Bristol, swiftly rewarded by being invited with London to jointly host this October’s inaugural Global Parliament of Mayors.

Despite there being over 30,000 directly elected municipal mayors in EU countries alone, the global dimension in the 2012 referendum ‘debate’ barely stretched beyond The Simpsons’ Diamond Joe Quimby and New York’s 9/11 hero Rudy Giuliani. Generally, the Yes campaigns were half-baked and the No campaigns puerile – Birmingham’s intellectually challenging contribution being ‘Vote No to a Power Freak’. Serious information and ministerial leadership were as minimal as they were six months later in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

Yet most, if not all, of these referendums were almost certainly winnable. Early campaign opinion polls showed clear majorities of respondents in favour of their city having a directly elected mayor – 53% to 37% in Birmingham, 54 to 23 per cent across the five South and West Yorkshire cities. That the referendums were lost, and that public opinion today is far more negative than it was then, is attributable not to Clegg and the Lib Dems, but to Conservative ministerial indifference and leadership failure.

One thing the Government both could and should have done, and advocated at the time in these columns, was to introduce a power of recall, to deal with the frequently raised concern of voters being unable – unlike in some other mayoral systems – to remove an elected mayor in whom a large proportion subsequently loses confidence.

It should have been done, because ministers said they would in the Localism Bill’s 2011 impact assessment (p.9): if mayors were going to exercise additional powers, the accountability regime should include a recall mechanism.

Like Osborne’s famous balanced books, the “later date” at which it was supposed to happen never arrived. So, if we’re to accept his dogmatic insistence that elected mayors and only elected mayors will meet his accountability requirements, now would be a good time to resuscitate recall and hurry it along.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.