This local shakeup will transform the political scene

Published in The Guardian (February 13th, 2012)

Soon after becoming leader of Liverpool council two years ago, Joe Anderson flew to Shanghai to drum up investment. He aimed to exploit the success of the city’s pavilion at the World Expo, with its video greeting from Paul McCartney and football showcase.

But there was a problem. The mayor of Shanghai was confused by Liverpool having a council leader and a lord mayor. So who was in charge, he wondered? The experience convinced Anderson that his city needed to follow London and have a highly visible figurehead – especially given the intense global competition that exists between cities.

Now he has his wish. Liverpool voted last week to become the biggest city outside the capital to be run by an elected mayor. As part of the move, Anderson secured £130m from central government in the first “city deal” of its kind. This will fund a dozen new schools and a new hospital, and give special powers to tackle long-term unemployment.

The little-noticed vote is part of a little-noticed revolution this year. There will be elections for up to 12 new city mayors, depending on local referendums, along with 41 ballots for the powerful new posts of police commissioners. The results could transform the political landscape, with Birmingham and Bristol among those likely to follow London and Liverpool. They may even salve some of the deep wounds in our body politic, slightly closing the gap that has opened up between politicians and a wearily cynical electorate.

For 14 years, governments have been trying to shift power from the English centre, with minimal success apart from in London. Now the drive has been speeded-up, lowering the threshold for referendums, and permitting ministers to pass extra powers, funds and functions to mayors – incentives introduced after most local electorates that voted on the idea, rejected it. The reforms are not perfect – the mayors remain too weak and few in number – and nor are they the panacea to our political problems, but they are a progressive step.

Following the flop of electoral reform, these contests are the most significant constitutional change the coalition is introducing – far more important than the tedious House of Lords reform that looks likely only to bring in more party jobsworths. They take us closer to models seen abroad: after all, in France presidents build power bases on mayoralties, while in the US we saw the White House chief of staff quit to run Chicago.

The titanic struggle in London between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone shows clearly there is no place for party slaves in fiercely contested local battles. Candidates must assert independence and reflect local concerns to build a relationship with voters. If they succeed, they can become dynamic political forces and even challenge party leaders, as both these men have demonstrated. This is good for the vitality of politics while also encouraging local innovation, such as congestion charging and city cycling schemes.

The winner of May’s election in London will be joined by a host of similarly powerful, independent-minded and well-known characters. Anderson may be challenged by Phil Redmond, the TV mogul, while Liverpool-born “red Tory” Phillip Blond is being urged to run. Several prominent figures are preparing to leave Westminster for local politics – a significant change in the direction of travel – while police commissioners could include John Prescott in Hull, Falklands veteran Simon Weston in south Wales and Tim Collins, the army officer famed for his Iraq battle cry, in Kent.

Some people fear personality politics, especially in town halls where ballots threaten their backroom dealings. They are wrong to do so. For a start, like it or not, it reflects the celebrity age in which we live. More importantly, it increases interest in politics. Peter Soulsby, a council leader and MP before becoming mayor of Leicester last year, told me he did two dozen hustings in his campaign – more than he had done in four decades’ involvement in politics. In London, turnout has risen with each mayoral vote.

Studies have found more than twice as many people can name an elected mayor over a council leader and that voters are twice as likely to feel involved in decision-making. Soulsby says expectations of a mayor are far greater. And cities need vocal champions, whether to counter London’s dominance or compete on the world stage.

Prescott’s confirmation that he is among several former Labour ministers planning to stand as police commissioners proves the party has seen the opportunity created by these new posts after opposing them for two years. Inadequate leadership has undermined the police, leading to bungling, bureaucracy and over-caution, while poor handling of low-level crimes has eroded public support. We need more innovation and accountability – and any politician able to shake things up and cut crime will deservedly win a national platform.

Not all the new local leaders unleashed this year will be successful. But at least they are visible, unlike the faceless police authorities, and easily ejected, unlike council leaders in urban one-party fiefdoms. And at the very least, the cacophony of competing city champions will make politics more enlivening, which can only be to everyone’s benefit.

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