There are democratic gains to be made from the election of a Greater Manchester mayor, argues Francesca Gains – but only if the right checks and balances are built in.
On 5 May vast swathes of the country will go to the polls. Voters will elect a new mayor and assembly members in Greater London, police and crime commissioners across England and Wales, local councillors in England and representatives to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh National and Northern Ireland Assembly.
Once the dust settles, we will see the start of the contest to elect a metro mayor in Greater Manchester in May 2017. The parties will first select their candidates, and then move into campaign mode proper. The new metro mayor in Greater Manchester will arguably have more powers and decision making responsibilities than the Mayor of London. Together with the newly elected London mayor, the GM mayor will have the biggest personal mandate of any UK politician. It will be a fascinating and highly sought after prize.
Already there are two declared candidates for the Labour Party nomination. Tony Lloyd the region’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) is currently acting as the Interim Mayor. Lloyd is the former MP for Manchester Central with experience of ministerial office and has the advantage of campaigning and being elected as the PCC. Ivan Lewis, the current MP for Bury North is also standing, and like Lloyd has experience of ministerial office. Other candidates will emerge and all parties will see running credible candidates as key over the next year.
The candidates will have to overcome a lack of knowledge amongst Greater Manchester’s electorate of over two million and a mood of hostility around the perceived imposition of a mayoral model on the region from a small but vociferous group of campaigners.
Yet a recent ComRes survey commissioned by the BBC showed strong support for the view that decisions about employment, transport and housing should be made locally. And the opportunity to vote for a directly elected leader of the region’s decision making combined authority is a considerable extension of democracy. So there is much to play for.
And this is partly because although the economic and social case for devolution has been made and made well, the case for democratic gains from the mayoral model has hitherto been underdeveloped.
Across Europe and the United States elected mayors are seen to be good for economic and social development. Having a single identifiable figure with their own mandate means the mayor can act as an advocate for the region. It allows them to encourage inward investment and gives them the authority to bring business, the voluntary sector and other public actors together. This partnership approach is necessary to address difficult issues that are hard to solve in one sector alone and ensure the necessary social infrastructure in the region can develop alongside economic growth.
But it is also the case that the election of a directly elected mayor offers democratic gains as well. The electoral process alone offers the chance for far more public and media scrutiny of candidates’ manifestos and policy commitments. The Greater Manchester mayoral elections held in May 2017 are likely to see far better turnouts than the PCC elections held in November 2012 and normal local election turnout figures. The turnout for the Greater London mayor rose from 34% in the first elections in 2000 to 45% in 2008 although falling back to 38% in 2012.
The mayoral model itself also invites a more engaged and responsive engagement between elector and Mayor. Other directly elected politicians like city mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners have been more outward looking and willing to engage with innovative ways of getting public opinion on policies in between elections especially when compared with previous governance arrangements. A directly elected mayor (seeking re-election) will be responsive to issues raised by voters from across the region throughout their term of office.
But to achieve these democratic gains, the right checks and balances must be built into the ‘metro mayoral’ model. The legislation which enacts the Greater Manchester – and other- Devo deals provides little detail. For the public to benefit from the democratic potential of the mayoral model, checks and balances need to be built into local arrangements. For example, for consultation and input from public and key stakeholders in policy development; transparency of decision making arrangements; proper scrutiny, equalities assessment and evaluation of policy decisions are required.
That is why developments in Greater Manchester are important in setting standards and offering best practice for the other areas to follow. Since the interim mayor has been appointed there have already been improvements in transparency. Meetings chaired by the interim mayor are now publicised and webcast. There is a widespread public consultation over development of a spatial plan for the area. And plans are in progress to develop more robust scrutiny arrangements.
Also on the agenda is how to improve the diversity of cabinet representation through, for example, the appointment of deputies. The mayor’s cabinet, made up of the region’s ten local authority leaders, offers strength in the veto power it gives to each authority, but is not representative of the wider population. A lack of diversity will undermine the legitimacy of the mayoral office. Going forward it will be essential to ensure better representation of the diverse communities of Greater Manchester and that all voices are heard.
As the electoral race hots up in Greater Manchester, democratic gains as well as economic and social goals need to be on the agenda. In the current devolutionary experiment Greater Manchester has the chance to lead the way on this agenda as well as on the economic and social potential of devolution.
- The issues raised in this article are further explored in a special issue of the journal Representation. Bringing together expert analysis from academics and practitioners in the field, the special edition explores a wide range of issues related to devolution, ranging from the role of the Mayor to transport and from housing to health.