Calderdale council decided this week to say no to an elected mayor for the borough. When consulted, Hebden Royd Town Council also supported the view that a leader elected by the council was the lesser of two evils. I spoke in favour of that option, and would like to explain why.
Firstly, neither of the options is particularly attractive as they both put a large amount of power in the hands of one person, but central government is forcing us to choose one or the other.
However, many people have spoken out in favour of an elected mayor, saying that it is (i) democratic and (ii) what the people of Calderdale want. I would like to explain why I disagree with both of those points.
Would an elected mayor be more democratic? Well, superficially yes, giving every voter in Calderdale the opportunity to choose who runs the borough sounds more democratic. However, for me, democracy is about both representation and accountability. An elected mayor delivers representation, but once elected, there is no way of holding him or her accountable to the wishes of the people. Essentially, he or she would have carte blanche to do whatever they like for their period of office. On the other hand, a leader elected by the council can be removed by the council, so they can’t go out of control without facing up to the consequences.
But shouldn’t we ask the people of Calderdale what they think? Of course – and the council has done exactly that, in a consultation that I believe was flawed. I’ve dug my copy of the document out of the recycling (see picture) and although it gives a reasonably balanced picture of the two options, there is no kind of questionnaire that could be analysed statistically. All responses had to be written in the responder’s own words. No boxes to tick at all. However, the council somehow analysed the responses into six rather arbitrary categories. For example, the distinction between “option 1 – indirectly elected leader” and “opposed to an elected mayor” is rather subtle, since they essentially amount to the same thing. What does come across clearly, though, is that only 47% of people were in favour of an elected mayor on a turnout of approximately 1% of the borough’s households. That is clearly not a ringing endorsement.
At Hebden Royd, myself and others – including Labour councillors – expressed frustration at the imposition of this situation by the New Labour government. So much for local people making their own decisions. But, given that we have to opt for one of the choices, going with a leader elected by the council is clearly the least worst option.