An Elected Mayor for Bristol? Pshaw!

Posted: April 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

Pshaw: an exclamation of disgust, impatience, disbelief, etc. (Collins English Dictionary)

On May 3rd, 2012 –  Bristol will be holding a referendum on whether or not to have an elected mayor. Initially, I was enthused by the idea, as the prospect of change tends to do. But I’ve done some thinking and research, and now I’m not enthused at all, and shall vote against the change. Here’s why:

  • Change. You bet I’m interested in and enthused by the prospect of change – if it’s progressive change: not change for the sake of change, or change that looks progressive and substantive but is in fact a distraction from genuinely progressive change. Would an elected mayor represent and facilitate progressive change for Bristol and Bristolians? I think not. True, it’s possible a mayor would serve the city well, but the opposite is equally true. We only have to look at the experiences of other cities – Nottingham, for example – to realise that a mayoral system of local governance is no panacea – and that’s being unduly polite. Some, such as Tory Peter Abraham, seem convinced that the powers of elected mayors can only grow over time, as if this prospect were one we could look forward to. But behind the bluster and red herrings, he abjectly fails to make the rational case for a mayor with more powers than the Council Leader currently possesses. Certainly our present council with a Council Leader system of governance is far from perfect – but the essential problems won’t be addressed by a mayoral system, and may well be exacerbated. Our present system incorporates more checks and balances into the political-legislative process (albeit not enough) than would be the case under the proposed mayoral system. Doubtless the prospect of mayoral systems of governance popping up around the country appeals to many politicians – but it’s the appeal of POWER, as simple and brutish as that. We should be mindful that the more power invested in a unitary source of political authority, the greater the potential for abuse of that power. A corrupt mayor (and let’s not forget, most politicians these days seem to be corrupt, or at least lame in the face of corporate greed and corruption) would be hugely damaging for Bristol.
  • Democracy. Would a mayor represent and facilitate greater democracy for Bristol? Again, no. True, a mayor would be elected directly by voters, which superficially seems democratic, but in fact the mayoral system on offer is less democratic than the system we have at present, where directly elected councillors elect a Council Leader who is also a councillor. The test of democracy for me is in how political decisions are arrived at – true democracy is characterised by decisions arrived at through enlightened consensus after rational and inclusive deliberation. With this in mind, I’m not persuaded of the need for a Council Leader, let alone a mayor with even greater powers. Under the mayoral system it would be more difficult for the council to effect legislation – proposed legislation would require the support of at least two-thirds of the council, instead of a simple majority as at present. Many suffer in this country – and not just this country of course – from ‘Leaderitus’, and its sufferers think that there are special people with special powers who can do miracles, and all you have to do is vote them in. It doesn’t work like that, not least because this represents and encourages an abrogation of the citizen’s socio-political responsibilities. Democracy – which means government by the people for the people –  if it is to flourish, requires all stakeholders to contribute to policy formation. This means that we must conceive of ourselves as participative co-creators of society: society is not just something we encounter – we ARE society, and are responsible for its direction and shape. An example of democracy working would have been if the residents of Stokes Croft and surrounding areas had been listened to, with Tesco refused planning permission as a consequence. There was overwhelming local support for the ‘No to Tesco on Stokes Croft’ campaign, and the arguments put forth by it were persuasive and reasonable. (see note 1 below) But Bristol City Council decided to reject the voice of Bristolians and listen to big business instead. Would democracy have prevailed under an elected mayor? Perhaps a mayor would have felt cowed into appeasing the campaign and local residents? We’ll never know, but the point is real democracy requires real democratic input into political decision-making, and the question of whether or not we should have a mayor is a distraction from the pressing issue at hand: how can Bristolians have a greater input into the decisions that affect them and Bristol? Solutions are out there, they’ve been out there for a long time – Bristol is of course not unlike so many other places where democracy is said to prevail; that these solutions have largely been ignored is indicative of the lack of real democracy that exists. Real democracy is intrinsically a threat to those who hide behind the pretence of democracy in service to interests more concerned with the control of human and material resources for private gain. Whether or not Bristol has an elected mayor will have little bearing on this.
    We need to be aware too that there will be no right of recall, which means that the mayor will be there – for good or for bad – for four years, so if he/she is making a pig’s ear of things – or worse, is found to be downright corrupt, we’ll have to wait until that term of office expires and vote someone else in (who might – sorry to be so pessimistic – be just as bad!). At least the Council Leader can be voted out of office if they no longer command the support of the majority of other councillors. And what about broken promises? Frankly, this country has had a bellyful of broken manifesto promises – there really should be legislation in place to bring politicians and even governments to book when they so brazenly disregard their manifesto pledges. I can foresee prospective city mayors promising all sorts of wondrous things, and wonder of wonders! – not delivering.
    And democracy requires that potential candidates for positions of political office are able to make their cases for that office on a level playing field and not be able to secure an unfair advantage through pecuniary means. As Gus Hoyt – Green Party councillor for the Ashley ward in Bristol – asks, “Will there be limits on how much individuals/businesses can donate – or how much a wealthy individual can contribute to their own campaign?” (see note 2 below)
  • Policies over presentation and personalities. How policies are arrived at, their probable effects and the beliefs and values they embody – these are the imperative criteria that should inform us in our political affiliations and decisions. Unfortunately, in our unmitigated capitalist-consumer media age, the propensity for sensational representations of the real to stake a greater claim on perceptual reality than reality itself, continues quite unabated. Thus, in the political arena, this is reflected in the tendency of individuals to be swayed by personalities and presentation rather than plain facts of policy. Politicians – a wily old bunch, know this, and not surprisingly many master the artful craft of playing to the emotions and prejudices of the electorate: ‘Call me Tony’; Cameron hugging huskies and hoodies – you get the picture! When will we learn? Politics is not show-business folks… It’s about as serious a business as a business can get; it’s constructing tomorrow – our tomorrows, the tomorrows of everyone who is and is yet to be, for better or for worse. More than ever, we need political representatives who understand and appreciate this. The concept and practice of mayoral governance, in my view, works to diminish the importance and understanding of real political identity in favour of stage-managed personalities and novelties of presentation – how else can someone like Boris Johnson be elected to London Mayor! We might end up with a real ‘character’ for a mayor – someone who encourages newspaper sales and attracts plenty of media attention – but what of the policies? Will they be good for Bristol? Will they make the city a fairer, more prosperous and enriching place to live? I fear that the move towards city mayors is a cynical attempt to foster a false notion of greater democratisation, and fortify the pernicious and prevalent fixation on presentation and personalities, along with the associated malady of ‘Leaderitus’ – at the expense of efficacious democratic local governance.
  • Cost. Finally, we should be aware that mayoral elections (not to mention the referendum on whether or not we should have a mayor) will cost a big heap of money – money better spent on Bristol and Bristolians, in my view.

Not to put too fine a point on it: VOTE NO!

Notes

1. The Guardian ‘Bristol locals prepare for new fight after battle of Tesco’ (28 March, 2012): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/mar/28/bristol-stokes-croft-battle-tesco

2. Bristol Festival of Ideas ‘Should Bristol have an elected mayor? Gus Hoyt and Peter Abraham discuss the issues’ (22 March, 2012): http://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/?p=2864

Mayor Joseph "Joe" Quimby, nicknamed "Diamond Joe," is a character from The Simpsons. The character is a parody of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and corrupt politics in general.

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