When Oxford said No to an elected mayor (and how I came to change my mind)

by Stephen Tall on May 6, 2012

Nine out of the 10 English cities asked on Thursday if they wanted their councils to be run by a directly-elected mayor said no. Only Bristol opted for change, while Doncaster overwhelmingly voted to retain its elected mayor. The status quo, as so often in conservative Britain, won.

Oxford’s mayoral referendum: May 2002

Ten years ago, on 2nd May 2002, Oxford also voted on whether to change to an elected mayor. This city, too, rejected the idea, 55%-45% — notwithstanding the vocal support of the local paper, and (re-reading it today) a quite astonishingly leading question:

“Are you in favour of the proposal for Oxford City Council to be run in a new way, which includes a mayor, who will be elected by the voters of that city, to be in charge of the Council’s services and to lead Oxford City Council and the community which it serves?”

At the time, I was very much in the No camp. Here’s the letter I wrote to the local paper in the lead-up to the referendum:

Letter to Oxford Times, 30th October 2001

Dear Sir,

Of course The Oxford Times is in favour of an elected mayor – you reckon it will shift more newspapers. The real question is this: will it create better local government? I suggest any reader tempted to answer “Yes” ask themselves five questions.

1. If one person makes all the decisions will they all be right?

It seems unlikely. Yet an elected mayor really will have steam-rollering power, free to ignore elected councillors whenever he or she wants. I believe this city’s current, basic principle – that council actions have to be agreed by a group of people who together represent Oxford – is a good one.

2. Which politician would you trust with that much power?

Any elected mayor will almost certainly be a career politician, so removing ordinary, working people from this layer of democracy. Equally as worrying is the potential for cronyism and corruption. You claim that elected mayors “work successfully across the democratic world”. I would be interested to hear how you square this view with the fact that over 50 former US mayors are currently in prison for corruption.

3. How can an incompetent mayor be removed?

Quite simply: they cannot. Most mayoral systems in other countries allow for removal following either a vote of council or a citizens’ petition – however, New Labour has ruled out that possibility. There will be no way of getting rid of a mayor once elected, and changing their decisions will be nigh-on impossible.

4. Will it make local government more exciting?

Maybe, if you are more interested in personalities than politics. But in May 2000’s election for London mayor (and it is hard to imagine a contest with more excitement or a greater choice) just one-third of the electorate bothered to vote – the same number as turned out to elect the Greater London Assembly. Or as voted in Oxford’s city council elections that same day.

5. How much will an elected mayor cost?

The referendum you champion will cost this city’s taxpayers £50,000. The annual cost of the mayor and their office is estimated at £100,000. Perhaps The Oxford Times can devote its editorial this week to detailing which key council services you would like to see cut by £150,000 in the next year?

Yours faithfully,

Stephen Tall (Cllr)
Lib Dem city councillor, Headington ward

Then my Mayor culpa

But a further few years as a local councillor came to change my mind, as I explained here in 2006:

Here comes the mea culpa… I’ve changed my mind in the intervening four years. For sure, the system is no panacea, and there are potential perils in electing a local, corrupt big-shot (I’ve already name-checked Robert Maxwell).

But it’s become clear to me that what Oxford needs is a full-time political leader, able to devote him or herself fully to taking the organisation by the scruff of its neck, and who can be held directly accountable for their success or failure at the end of their term of office.

With city council elections held every other year, there is too often an unwillingness for our political groups to make the tough choices needed to ensure this city’s future success for fear there might be short-term electoral difficulties. A mayor would possess both the confidence inherent in having secured a democratic mandate, and also the time to be able to implement their manifesto, and in which residents could judge their achievements.

For too long, city council politics have been in the hands of amateur part-time leaders: some have been very good, some not so good. But all have been ham-strung by a political system that grants them responsibility without power, allows them to be in office but not in government.

To those reasons — credibility and accountability — I added an additional reason here:

… our cities should — like the devolved cities and states in the US and in Europe — become centres where policies can be trialled, where the UK learns to experiment with social policy according to what works within the local context. Those ideas which thrive will be taken up by national government; those which fail will see their proponents chucked out at the next election. As it is, local government is stultifyingly risk-averse.

That risk-averseness is as entrenched in the voting public as it is in the local government system.