A Boris in every city? No thanks

Voters’ rejection of elected city mayors was a rebellion against the ‘reformitis’ of the modern oligarchy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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One of the most striking results in the elections on 3 May was the rejection of the idea of having elected city mayors. As the commentariat got overexcited by the Boris vs Ken shenanigans in London, looking at that battle for the mayorship of the capital as the only colourful spat in an otherwise grey electoral farce, in other English cities the electorate made it clear they didn’t want similar contests where they live. Ten cities held referendums on whether to have an elected mayor; all but one said no.

The Lib-Con government and commentators got pretty giddy about the idea of spreading elected mayors across England. These men or women would provide cities with ‘strong, visible leadership’ and boost their ‘international standing’, said cities minister Greg Clark. One commentator said England’s smaller cities have a weird ‘determination to do themselves down’ and so maybe an elected mayor would help them ‘believe in themselves’. (Why not just send Oprah on a self-esteem-boosting tour of the North?)

To say that the electorate didn’t share this enthusiasm for elected mayors is an understatement. In the 10 cities asked ‘Do you want an elected mayor?’, only one – Bristol – said yes. Everywhere else, where people could be bothered to vote on this apparently burning question (turnout hovered between 24 and 32 per cent), electorates said a clear ‘Nah, you’re all right’.

In Leeds, for example, where the turnout was 30 per cent, 67 per cent rejected the idea of having an elected mayor. In Wakefield, on a turnout of just over 28 per cent, 62 per cent said no. In Coventry, 64 per cent of those who voted said no; in Sheffield it was 65 per cent; in Newcastle it was 62 per cent; and in Birmingham it was 58 per cent. Relative to an election in which not many people voted and no party won anything like an enthusiastic mandate, this is resounding: clear majorities said ‘stuff you’ to elected mayors. Imagine if one of the parties had received a 67 per cent share of the vote – they’d have been cock-a-hoop.

Many observers have put the failure of the city-mayors plan down to the grubbiness of this year’s Boris vs Ken clash. Apparently, Midlanders and Northerners watched those two big names slug it out over tax returns and swear at each other in lifts and thought: ‘We don’t need that sort of dross on our patch.’ In truth, there’s far more to the anti-mayor vote than that. What we witnessed on 3 May was voters making a public expression of their alienation from and disdain for contemporary political institutions. This was a rejection, not just of having ‘a Boris in every city’, as David Cameron dreamt, but of the modern political oligarchy’s cynical, face-saving habit of fashioning new political institutions to give the impression that it is engaged and energetic.

On numerous occasions, voters have been asked to embrace new political institutions that will apparently ‘empower’ them and ‘boost’ their local communities. And each time they have said no. In 2004, then deputy prime minister John Prescott’s proposal to set up an elected regional assembly in the North East of England was, in the words of one observer, ‘blown out of the water’ by voters. On a turnout of 47.8 per cent, a whopping 78 per cent of North-Easterners said no to his plans. In last year’s referendum on the Alternative Vote system, 13million people, or 67.9 per cent of those who voted, said no to what had been trumpeted by the Lib Dems and their then enthusiastic backers in the liberal press as a massively important leap forward for Britain. And now, despite Lib-Con claims that elected mayors would help cities ‘realise their potential’, majorities have said no to them, too.

All these proposed new electoral institutions shared two things in common. First, unlike the big properly democratic political reforms of the past, they were dreamt up by infinitesimally small numbers of suits and activists behind closed doors rather than being demanded by throngs in Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square. And second, the motivation behind them is a desperate desire by the cut-off elites to find some way to reconnect with ‘ordinary people’, with what they view as a blob of unknowable creatures with curious habits who no longer seem that interested in voting in old-fashioned parliamentary or local elections. From regional assemblies to AV to city mayors, it’s all about scrabbling about for a new way to ‘do politics’.

What the elite clearly doesn’t get is that the most pressing problem today is not how politics is done, but what it consists of: not much; no ideological zeal, no passion, no vision or serious division. It is the hollowing-out of politics, not the nature of the institutions through which it is pursued, that has caused people to switch off and do something less boring instead. In trying to create new institutions and systems to re-engage us, politicians are frantically hunting for technical solutions to what is actually a profound political crisis. In saying ‘no’ to these new institutions and systems, the public is implicitly rebelling against the elite’s desperate attempts to paper over the emptiness of modern politics with a bit of new-fangled BS.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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