Thursday, October 30, 2008

Last Echo of a Gerrymander

With the news that voters in Stoke-on Trent have decided to scrap the post of elected Mayor, the last echo of one of Labour's more subtle gerrymanders dies away.

When Labour set up the legislation to change how councils work at the start of this decade, they determined to scrap the committee system and encourage as many councils as possible to go for directly elected mayors.

The government laid down rules insisting on the way councils had to consult their electorates about various models for systems with elected mayors chosen by the voters, or systems with a leader chosen by other councillors. And the systems included in that consultation appeared to me then and now to have been chosen to tilt the scales towards elected mayors,

In reality there were three systems which were expected to be taken seriously

1) Mayor and cabinet - the voters elect a mayor who appoints a cabinet

2) "Strong Leader" and cabinet - councillors elect one of their number as leader and he or she appoints a cabinet from among the councillors.

3) "Weak Leader" and cabinet - the full council appoints a leader and cabinet from among their number.

However, for one good reason and one very bad one, the government did not put it to local electorates like that. The good reason is that "weak leader" was a poor and misleading name which would probably have underminded the arguments for this system - a much more democratic one than the so-called "strong leader" model.

The bad reason was that putting to voters one model with an elected mayor and two with leaders would have skewed the votes cast in favour of "leader" models.

So instead for consultation purposes the "strong leader" and "weak leader" models were merged and second model with a mayor was drawn up on the back of an enevelope, so that the options put to voters were

1) Mayor and cabinet - the voters elect a mayor who appoints a cabinet, mostly consisting of councillors

2) Mayor and "council manager" - the voters elect a mayor who appoints a CEO to take most of the decisions.

3) Leader and cabinet - councillors elect a leader who either appoints a cabinet or has one appointed by and from the council.

Hardly anyone took seriously the anti-democratic "Mayor and council manager" model, which moves a lot of decisions from elected councillors to an appointed manager. But there was a single exception.

Including London, twelve authorities now have a "Mayor and Cabinet" model. Every other council which was required to abandon the committee system, or chose to do so, went for one of the "leader and cabinet" models. Except one.

The exception was - you've guessed it - Stoke on Trent. This was the one council which adopted the Mayor and Council Manager model.

Surprise surprise - the local Labour party in Stoke were not happy with the results when this option, which was only put in there to boost the vote for mayoral options, was actually picked.

On first reading of the results, it would appear that local residents didn't like the system either. Voting was 21,231 to 14,592 to replace the post with a council leader and Cabinet, in line with most other authorities.

But it's only fair to add that they were choosing between the options the government gave them. Central government decided to take the "Mayor and Council manager" out of the equation, and so Stoke was forced to go to the polls again and choose between "Mayor and cabinet" and "Leader and cabinet." For the second time, the option of the current status quo was not put to voters.

I personally would never have voted for the "Mayor and Council Manager" option but I don't see why local residents should not have been allowed the option. And I certainly think it shows contempt for local democracy that the government imposed consideration of this option less than ten years ago and then required Stoke on Trent to scrap it this year.

We need a genuinely bottom-up approach to local government and a lot less meddling from the centre. I very much hope that the next Conservative government remembers how infuriating we found all the New Labour control freakery and meddling and allows local councils more autonomy.

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