As the countdown towards next year’s London mayor election intensifies we are now more than 100 days into our Labour city mayor administration in Leicester.
In May Peter Soulsby became Leicester’s first directly elected city mayor with Labour holding power in the largest city mayor set-up outside the capital. There is no doubt that an elected city mayor system provides a far more democratic model of municipal power. Through direct election by the city’s voters and via the internal party selection ballot of the citywide membership, Elected Labour mayors claim a decisive and powerful double-lock mandate.
This contrasts with the way in which council leaders are elected, being reliant on the votes of fellow councillors and not the public to attain and sustain their positions.
In a Refounding Labour submission I proposed that Labour group leaders should be elected by the full party membership in a locality and not just by councillors – which would provide our Labour group and council leaders with a stronger mandate, but one still some distance from that of elected mayors.
This double-lock mandate is important given the executive powers currently vested in directly elected mayors, and would become even more important should the government deliver on its warm words of localism and devolve more strategic powers to mayors. Localism claims which we know remain largely shallow and empty, especially when coupled with the savage cuts hitting local service budgets.
Directly elected mayors can govern in a different way to conventional council leaders and can do so having assumed a different type of political power.
Experience so far in Leicester shows that for a start the public seem to take more notice of a city mayor and engage with local politics and governance with more enthusiasm and interest. People see the city mayor as being elected to lead the city and not just the council. Council leaders of course lead localities and not just their authorities but through direct election there is little doubt in my mind that people recognise this leadership of place responsibility much more in mayors than council leaders.
Arguably, through the direct mandate from the people the profile of the city mayor and his administration is higher. Our regular Meet the Mayor events which we hold in the city centre and across our neighbourhoods are busy and people are enthusiastic to raise their issues and questions with the mayoral team.
We are able to influence in a different way those bodies and forums beyond the local authority such as the new Local Enterprise Partnership and the emerging Health and Wellbeing Board. Through the direct mandate of an elected city mayor we have been able to articulate and drive our priorities through these structures.
Our first 100 days in office were fast-paced and generated a real momentum in delivering our manifesto priorities and advancing our progressive agenda for the city.
A successful mayoralty requires robust and active scrutiny and accountability. We have redesigned and added new resource to the council’s scrutiny function in response to our new system of city government and introduced new ways where the public can raise questions and concerns with us.
Experience so far in Leicester suggests that if we want successful city mayors – and successful Labour city mayors – then the government needs to devolve more powers. For example, more powers on public transport and wider transport strategy are much needed in cities such as Leicester. This is the case we are making and will be taking to DCLG ministers later this year.
In developing stronger local government we need to overcome the apparent unease in the party about elected mayors. We know that in too many places transitions to mayoral models and elected mayor contents have proved testing and controversial for Labour, with outcomes that have been disheartening and disruptive for local parties.
With the potential for more elected city mayors we need to be more embracing of the idea and more determined to make it work for Labour. More elected mayors can become the platform from which local government should make the case for more powers: powers which we need and can use to improve our communities, rebuild local economies and repair the damage being caused by this government’s cuts.
We want our experience in Leicester to show that city mayors can succeed for Labour and can help shape the next generation of our approach to local government and municipal leadership.
As a party we should be more confident about elected mayors and see more cities with mayors as a big opportunity to advance a Labour agenda and deliver real change in cities across the country.
Rory Palmer is deputy city mayor of Leicester. He tweets at @Rory_ Palmer.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.