A couple of weeks ago I sat in a meeting of over a hundred parents and professionals, looking at better provisions for families of disabled children. There were two local MP’s in the audience pledging their support to work for change and take up the parents’ concerns. But, everyone knew that the person in the room with the power to make any immediate difference to their lives was the local mayor. It was at him that much of the lobbying on the day was aimed at, and the commitment they secured with him to look again at local provision was the most valued.
This may seem a more obvious point for Londoners going through the Ken vs. Boris prize-fight. But campaigners will need to begin to think a lot more locally should the 10 referendums produce mayors for Cities like Birmingham and Newcastle. Despite ritual acknowledgements that more is going local, many campaigns and campaigning organisations behave as if nothing has changed in the landscape.
It’s indicative of where some the politicians see the shift in power when senior politicians and ex cabinet ministers, such a Liam Byrne, are already announcing their candidacy. In Birmingham, there is the possibility that many of the local MPs will stand if the electorates gives these proposals the green Light, and it looks as if they will do. The most recent opinion poll in Birmingham put those in favour at almost twice those against, though Manchester looks less certain. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is likely that there will be mayors in most large cities or metropolitan areas. What’s more, outside of London, mayors will have even more direct power than Boris or Ken have enjoyed, because, unlike London, there will not be the complicating factor of so many boroughs.
With this shift there will need to be a much more radical reappraisal of national campaigning strategies. This does not just mean taking account of devolved administrations in the countries, but also acknowledging the devolved administrations in cities. The hope ,of course, is that this would rejuvenate democracy and sense of local accountability, but this will only happen if people take the opportunity to organise themselves around these new sources of power and influence. For national organisations, this may be another headache for the Westminster based approach to campaigning. However, for smaller campaigns and local campaigners, this could be the biggest boost they have had for many years, as key decisions about local services and infrastructure issues will be given a new focus at the city or metropolitan level.
Locally, some of the same issues for campaigners will remain. It will be crucial to identity what mayors really do have the power and capacity to alter, and what they don’t. There will still be many national and funding constraints on what they can do. Political parties will still turn this into proxy battles for local control, as the London contest shows – but, even here, running for office are not two party clones, but politicians that have to care about what the local electorate thinks about national policy, and trim accordingly.
Also, as opinion polls consistency show, on the whole, those cities that have a Mayor think they are better off – in London, over two-thirds of those polled (69 per cent) agreed that “London is a better city for having a Mayor”. Only 12 per cent disagreed. However, in Stoke they did reverse the decision to have a mayor and reverted to council leader and cabinet system. What ’s more, polls suggest that mayors are better known than council leaders and that more independents’ have been able to break through compared to the national level.
For those hoping for a new localism, this does at least hold the prospect of securing a change to local accountability. It would also provide a clearer line of access to those making some of the most fundamental decisions about our daily lives. Mayors will not be able to solve everything, and they will still be hamstrung by national restrictions, especially around spending. But, for campaigners who organise properly, there will be rich opportunities to make a real difference in their local communities. The parents I was with had already understood this and they were making sure, at least for their children, that something was going to change, whatever the national picture might be.