The news today is that the directly-elected Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Mark Meredith, has stood down following his arrest a few days ago by police investigating alleged corruption. Mark Meredith was elected as a Labour Mayor and his arrest follows the arrest a few days earlier of the Conservative Group leader on the same Council. I don’t know the background of this series of events and I make no comment other than to note that both men have said that they are standing down “to clear their names”. However, this is more evidence that the history of directly-elected Mayors (outside London) has not been an easy one.
Another, directly-elected Mayor – this time in Doncaster – has just defied a vote of 46 to 6 by Doncaster council calling on him to resign. This is at least the second occasion that that Mayor has ignored motions of no confidence passed by the Council.
And, of course, in 2003 the Mayor of North Tyneside had to resign following his arrest on child pornography charges – charges of which he was subsequently acquitted.
Much was made of the election of a “monkey” as Mayor of Hartlepool in 2002 but, of course, the record of Stuart Drummond was sufficently good that he was re-elected in 2006 with 68% of the vote.
So what next for directly-elected Mayors? Of the nine Mayoral areas outside London, two have had their Mayors resign following police action. And the history elsewhere has often been turbulent. Obviously, it is a small sample, but two out of nine does begin to look statistically significant.
In London, the experience seems to have been different. In the three Boroughs where there are directly-elected Mayors (Hackney, Lewisham and Newham) the administrations appear to have been by and large well-run and many would argue an improvement on what had gone before. And whatever Londoners’ views of the current incumbent of the London-wide Mayorality or of his predecessor, there is little doubt that Londoners prefer to have directly-elected Mayor presiding over the capital, compared with either the absence of city-wide authority that existed from 1985 to 2000 or the old Greater London Council that rather uneasily operated on top of the Boroughs from 1965 to 1985.
Certainly, my own experience in London makes me a supporter of the concept of directly-elected Mayors. And both the Government and the Conservative opposition would support more directly-elected Mayors in the big cities at least.
I hesitate to suggest that the reason the model has worked in London is because of the fact that London has innately more sophisticated electors than those in the rest of the country. While this may be true (and, if that doen’t excite hate mail from out-of-Londoners, I don’t know what will), I suspect the real reason is that so far outside London there have only been a small number of directly-elected mayors and often these have been in areas where the local political processes have not been working well or have been under great stress (as in Doncaster). And why have two Mayors been arrested? I don’t know. However, it is certainly the case that directly-elected Mayors will by their very nature be more high profile than more traditional civic leaders and as such they attract strong feelings (which may mean politically-motivated attacks) and greater scrutiny.
Greater scrutiny has to be a good thing. Moreover, if the end-result, is that the political parties exercise greater care as to who they chose as Mayoral candidates (and that does not mean more celebrities!) and, if the local media and indeed local electorates are more discriminating as to who they back as “independents”, that will be good both for local democracy and local government itself.