I don’t think anyone ever thought there was much love lost between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. The explosion of expletives that Johnson let fly at Livingstone in a lift yesterday merely confirmed matters. It’s unedifying to say the least: London is an ancient and venerable city, and yet it finds itself potentially in the thrall of either a right wing buffoon or a firebrand who is well past his prime. Some may challenge this description of Ken, however, let’s be honest: if he was still gripped by the same fervour as he was in his youth, would he be structuring his tax arrangements so carefully and evasively? Whatever happened to being the tribune of the people?
I look at these two, Eeney and Meeny, Miney and Moe, Larry and Curly, and think of the opening line of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” – “I celebrate myself and sing myself”. While they couldn’t be more different ideologically, they do share one unappealing trait: rampant egotism. They both wish to stand astride a colossus, to inflate self-regard with every press appearance and poster that is stamped with the mark “Mayor of London” with the “on” printed in a different colour. They celebrate themselves and sing themselves through public office; meanwhile, London is a mess. I am sure that the mayor’s office would love to throw out all sorts of statistics about crime and public transport, but step out of a dirty, teeming London Underground station and breathe the air. Look at the traffic. See the homeless selling the Big Issue. Try to ignore the thought that much festers in the great city, and Boris and Ken, Zipedee and Doo Dah, are not the likely purveyors of a cure.
Meanwhile, mayors have been tried out in other cities with similarly questionable results. In Hartlepool, they elected the mascot for Hartlepool United FC: literally, a man in a monkey suit. In keeping with this, he ran on a platform of free bananas for all. In Doncaster, a representative of the peculiar English Democrats became mayor. There are very good reasons to prefer the monkey. The mayor of Doncaster, Peter Davies, is notable for ending his city’s twinning arrangements with European towns. He also wanted to get rid of community cohesion officers: however Doncaster doesn’t have any. Among his more intriguing beliefs is his faith in the use of the birch as a tool of discipline in schools. To call his views antediluvian is to lend them a modernism they lack. Never mind, Davies presses on, enjoying the trappings of office as he celebrates himself and sings himself, at least until a referendum on May 3, in which the citizens of Doncaster may decide to abolish his post.
On the same day, Bradford will be voting on the exact same issue: the city has been offered the option of an elected mayor. David Cameron more or less threatened Bradford with isolation if the vote went against the proposal: he stated that only elected mayors would get a seat at the top table. To be fair, there are other advantages: councillors tend to get lost in a crowd, a single mayor is easy to identify. As a former New Yorker, I know that a good mayor can be a rallying point at a time of disaster, as Rudy Giuliani was on September 11th, and like Ed Koch, can be a great salesman and promoter of trade. But note the difference: the powerful, well-regarded mayor is primarily an American institution. In other words, this is an alien transplant, and its graft onto the British political system is yielding truly strange fruit. The British way of local governance may be more anonymous, but deliberation by committee seems much more democratic, as layers of elected representatives have to decide on issues of local import; the rise of mayors is indicative of a fad or fetish. We have seen this motif in business as well: there remains a widespread belief that a single high-profile individual can somehow dramatically improve the running of a large organisation in a short amount of time. With the collapse of Sir Fred Goodwin’s reputation along with that of many other CEOs, the “heroic” form of leadership should be discredited. But here we are.
There are particular pitfalls for Bradford. The Respect Party said last week it wants to capitalise fully on its success in the Bradford West by-election; it stands a greater chance of winning the mayoralty than the English Democrats did in Doncaster. Perhaps sensing this, Respect wants a “yes” vote in the referendum; this may be the only issue upon which they’ve found agreement with the Tories. A Respect mayor could end up being more focused on setting up Bradford as a “rebel citadel” than attending to the city’s needs. Given the genuine poverty and unemployment that exists here, Bradford needs to show that it’s open for business. A good mayor would perhaps try to work on making the city into a hub for high tech startups: Bradford has low rents and high availability of fast broadband. It is difficult to stimulate interest in these advantages if you’re telling entrepreneurs, and by no means are all of them in it for achievement of pure avarice, that their property is theft.
Of course the current council has many failings; furthermore, it’s often difficult to discern their agenda let alone gauge their successes. However, there is a safety mechanism: should a council leader step out of line, they’re responsible to their peers and can be swiftly removed. Meanwhile London languishes as it waits, and then it seems it can only replace Boris with Ken.
The drive for mayors does have the admirable goal of improving governance; however, it’s rare that big structural alterations in either government or business yield prudent changes. Prudence rather suggests that the citizenry should become more involved in their own governance by becoming acquainted with local issues, joining political parties, standing for election, and participating in the open meetings which are one of the many admirable features of British democracy. This is a sedate form of progress, almost boring, and thus unappealing to politicians addicted to the narcotic of quick wins. But a silver bullet is neither necessary nor desirable: it’s a remedy prescribed by quacks and charlatans. Vote no.