By the end of the 20th century, mayors were roughly like monarchs in a northern European social democracy; bizarrely dressed remnants of the Middle Ages with no real power of any kind. They wore medallions and robes, waved rattles about at parades and fetes, and had nothing to do with actual local government. This was carried out by democratically elected representatives, who ran councils with extensive political powers from buildings that were often the most prominent in the area. On 6 May, people in England will vote for no fewer than thirteen mayors – all positions created since 2000, most since 2010. At the same time, almost none of them, nor the councillors with whom they work, will have the sort of powers that used to be the norm from Southampton to Inverness. You might assume there’s a correlation between the rise of mayors and the decline of local government, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
The elected mayor was an invention of the late 1990s and was, like many bad ideas, the brainchild of Tony Blair. Blair, like the West Wing nerds who venerate him to this day, was a fanboy of the American political system, including its urban governance. This seems puzzling, given that by the 1990s, most urban success stories in terms of public services, public transport and quality of life were in European cities like Barcelona or Copenhagen, with their strong and politically partisan systems of local government. In the USA, meanwhile, public transport networks even in the Democrat-controlled cities had been either neglected or torn up; suburbs and exurbs proliferated; parking lots dominated inner urban space; and segregation was increasing rather than declining. These cities were usually presided over by elected mayors, powerful “city bosses” who were sometimes charismatic, but never genuinely powerful. Yet it was the American mayoral system that Blair picked to reinvigorate a local politics that was reeling from the assaults of Margaret Thatcher. “Mayor” might be an old term, but it’s from the same pedigree as other New Labour buzzwords like “zero tolerance”, “boot camps”, calling civil servants “tsars” and a workfare programme the “New Deal” – the product of a cargo cult based on the politics of a country whose way of building and running cities could hardly be said to be any sort of exemplar.
Undeniably, local government was not in a healthy state at the end of the 1990s. After the miners, Thatcher regarded elected local authorities in Britain’s large cities as her greatest enemy. The thread that linked many of her major policies, from the Right to Buy council housing to Section 28 to the Poll Tax, was an intense hatred of the fact that local governments could shield their constituents from at least some of her policies. By subtle methods like rate-capping (limiting the amount councils could legally raise in local taxes, and hence the quality and level of social provision they could pay for) or more brutal ones like the abolition in 1986 of the Greater London Council (GLC) – the London-wide elected parliament centred on County Hall on the South Bank of the Thames, along with the Metropolitan Councils of Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester that were created in the 1970s to mirror London’s model of elected metropolitan government – Thatcher not only ensured that London was the only major capital city in the world not to have an elected city-wide government, she also successfully destroyed a tradition of municipal socialism that, ironically, went back to conservative politicians like Joseph Chamberlain. By the 1990s, urban councils were financially and politically eviscerated.
One might have hoped that a Labour government’s solution to this would be to restore to local government the powers they had previously held – over education, transport, housing. On the contrary: schools were encouraged to depart ever further from democratic control by becoming academies, run by dubious chains; there would be no return to regulated public transport; and councils were told that funding for renovation of their housing would be conditional on “stock transfer” to housing associations. New Labour minister Hazel Blears summed this up retrospectively to Owen Jones: “We didn’t trust councils to wash the pots.”
The Blair government’s solution to the problems of local government’s decline into incompetence and resulting public disinterest in political participation was to create a new source of power: elected, US-style mayors, starting with London. These would have fewer powers than the old Town Halls, but they would be a sort of combination of a celebrity figurehead and a manager (Blair hoped to convince either Richard Branson or Alan Sugar to stand to become London’s first mayor). The mayor would be supervised by an elected Assembly, which would “hold him to account” but not actually set policy; here, the inspiration seemed to be less American Mayors of Chicago or LA and more the rubber-stamp parliament of the Russian Federation.
Despite Blair’s best efforts, the winner was Ken Livingstone, who, after losing the openly rigged selection for the Labour candidate, stood as an independent. Livingstone had criticised the notion of an elected mayor, noting that it would have far fewer powers than he did when he was GLC leader between 1981 and 1986 (this was, of course, the point). The next eight years were a test of whether a committed socialist could use the role for something other than the combination of Dick Whittington and Gordon Brittas that Blair was hoping for. The results were mixed.
Against government opposition, Livingstone managed some reforms to London transport, improving buses, nationalising private lines and introducing the congestion charge, though he lost a protracted legal battle with Gordon Brown, who was determined to privatise the underground (it was renationalised by his successor, Boris Johnson). In most other respects, Livingstone served as a sort of combination of business booster, always going abroad to drum up “investment”, and an ambassador, ready to give heartwarming speeches on multiculturalism and opportunity. He never quite managed to step outside the limits Blair had drawn.
It’s no wonder, then, that creating new mayors based on the London model has been popular with Tory governments since 2010, be they the “Metro Mayors” of the other main cities, or various directly elected mayors of towns and boroughs; elected Mayors usually come alongside tightly-knit elite cabinets the results of which we can see unfolding in Liverpool. The Metro Mayors tend to have even less power than London Mayor, without the same basic oversight on planning and transport – though some, such as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, have used the role to some degree as a pulpit and clearly aim to squeeze new powers from the government. Some Labour leftists like Steve Rotheram in Merseyside or Jamie Driscoll in North of Tyne (an absurd area centred on Newcastle that doesn’t include contiguous Gateshead, but does include villages dozens of miles away) have tried their best to carve out an independent role.
Good luck to them, but it is the position itself that is the problem. Our elected mayors are a New Labour hangover, indebted to a 1990s notion that nothing really happened in politics, meaning ”participation” needed to be drummed up through celebrity fluff and managerial bullshit. It is no accident that Boris Johnson cut his teeth in a role perfectly suited to his vacuity. The left should not be campaigning for better mayors – we should be arguing for no mayors at all. They should be replaced with properly elected local authorities with powers once considered normal: to run our schools; control rents; own and run buses and trams; and build good housing. More devolution, less mayors.
Owen Hatherley is the culture editor of Tribune, the editor of The Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs and the author of Red Metropolis – Socialism and the Government of London.