The Tory-led government wants to undermine and erode local democracy. With 10 cities voting on directly elected mayors on 3 May, Doncaster activist Mick Wattam responds.
Referenda in 10 cities are taking place this May, which the Tory-led government hopes will deliver the go ahead for the introduction of elected mayors in many major cities outside London.
There has not been any substantial opposition to this. In fact Liverpool City Council, currently controlled by Labour, has voted to change its constitution and introduce an elected mayor without even consulting voters. The cities which will hold referenda on 3 May are Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield.
Council leaders are currently elected by local councillors, but central government wants these new directly elected mayors to be personally responsible for services provided in their locality, wielding executive power which will override the need for debate within the traditional local council meeting.
This, they say, will create stronger, more accountable local government. But who are they accountable to? Combined with other legislation, this threatens any kind of meaningful local democracy.
David Cameron says he is for devolving power from Westminster to the localities, but it is clear that this power will only be given if the local authority complies with government policy. The Localism Act, passed last November, commits the government to "shift power back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils".
Apparently central government has become "too big, too interfering, too controlling and too bureaucratic. This has undermined local democracy and individual responsibility, and stifled innovation and enterprise within public services".
It also states: "Local authorities have a crucial role to play in ensuring that day-to-day services to their communities are efficient and effective, offer good value for money and deliver what people actually want. To achieve this, local government will be more transparent and accountable to its citizens. It will also promote the Big Society by working closely with community groups and the voluntary sector.”
Following on from this, David Cameron and Cities Minister Greg Clark announced last month their intention to create a new Mayors Cabinet which:
"will ensure elected city mayors have a voice at the heart of Government. The Cabinet will provide city mayors with a direct route to the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers and provide a forum for cities to exchange ideas, highlight new innovations and lobby for the interests of their city".
This all seems very much like a government determined to have in place a network of elected Mayors who will be able to drive through not just the next round of cuts in services, but to make sure the wholesale ditching of council run services onto the private and voluntary sector goes ahead with the minimum of opposition.
Directly elected mayors are not new. The first one was introduced by New Labour in Greater London in 2000, and there are currently a dozen or so across England and Wales.
Doncaster elected its first mayor back in 2002. It was no surprise that the people of Doncaster chose to change their local government system after the "Donnygate" corruption episode, but it has proved no less than disastrous for the town.
New Labour's Mayor Winter became so unpopular with the electorate after pursuing a thoroughly Blairite business friendly agenda that even the local Labour party turned against him. He was expelled from the Labour party and faced a motion of no confidence in him in 2008, which was won by a majority of 42 votes to 8 with 7 abstentions. But as elected mayor he chose to ignore this, and carried on to complete his full term of office.
In 2009 the people of Doncaster chose their next mayor. With New Labour so discredited it looked like a leading independent would win, but with the second round transfer of votes the virtually unheard of Peter Davies of the English Democrat Party surprisingly won.
Davies has consistently attacked minorities within the town, with his policy of withdrawal of council translation services and removal of council support for Doncaster Pride. The town's library service has been ravaged and much of it handed over to volunteers. Education has fared no better, with nearly all of Doncaster's secondary schools now being academies and he has declared he wants to remove all schools from local authority control.
His often outrageous statements like his disbelief of global warming and praise of the “ordered way of life under the Taliban" have angered residents and his fellow councillors. He also faced a successful vote of no confidence, but has refused to resign.
In 2010 the Audit Commission declared Doncaster to be a "dysfunctional authority" and is now actually run by a chief executive imposed by the Tories in Westminster, even though Labour has managed to win back its majority. Clearly, having an elected mayor has not benefited local democracy in Doncaster at all.
Rolling out the elected mayor system across England and Wales must be seen as an attack on local democracy and an essential part of Tory plans to smash resistance to privatisation and cuts, which could lead to the breakup and demise of any kind of local democracy in the future.
If we oppose the cuts and austerity, then we must oppose the move to elected mayors.
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