Lyndon B Johnson once said: “When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor.”
At the 2022 London Borough elections Mayors could be taking centre stage. Borough Mayors are not new. There are four London Borough Mayors in existence currently (Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, and Tower Hamlets) and there is soon to be a fifth following the recent referendum in Croydon.
To date, changes to the governance of London Boroughs to mayors have come about through the referendum process where public acclamation calls for the referendum to change the system of governance. Often these acclamations are generated by political activists (as in Croydon) but more rarely are genuine grassroots campaigns often driven by dissatisfaction with the local political system. It is a little known and little exercised power, but a council does not need to hold a referendum to introduce a directly elected Mayor. The council can merely trigger a motion and with a simple majority hold a mayoral election within 6 months of that date.
Tower Hamlets has always brought us political interest and it will continue to do so next year. Whilst Mayor Biggs is now secure in his position within the local Labour party there are stirrings of a resurgence of support for the former Mayor Lutfur Rahman. Rahman was once the Labour Mayoral candidate and then elected in 2010 as an independent. After various investigations, he was banned from public office for five years, during which time he has been resurrecting his independence movement for another run against Mayor Biggs. In a recent by-election in Tower Hamlets, the new Aspire party of Rahman didn’t just win but crushed the Labour candidate, reversing the position at the 2018 elections. Rahman is back and he looks like he could be Mayor again.
In Croydon, we have a very difficult to read the picture. Croydon is bust. No money, Government intervention and sackings have created a cocktail that the Conservatives should be able to take advantage of. We all love to think residents pay attention to what is happening to their council and you would hope in this case there is a genuine mood for change. The Conservatives have already selected their hyper-local and current Conservative Leader as a candidate and this has left the Labour party looking somewhat flat-footed as it is suggested they will not be selecting a candidate until January — plenty of time for the Conservatives to frame the debate and get campaigning. The money must be on the current Labour leader being selected, but given the backdrop of council finances and the fact that their leader has just spent weeks arguing why there should not be a Mayor in the first place, it makes a tricky selection. Based on all these factors and the results of the recent London mayoral elections in Croydon means the Conservatives must start as favourites to win the election.
Despite the recent Croydon referendum, elected Mayors have not been the most popular choice of governance for councils. The reforms of the Local Government Act 2000 and the subsequent amendments under the Cameron Government have created an incredibly mixed and some would argue chaotic landscape of Local Government in the UK. There are strong leaders, leaders and cabinet, committee systems and mayors. It is no wonder that the public seems confused and at times angry with local politicians whenever they try to engage with their Council. In London Boroughs it has become like bin collections — no two ways of collecting the bins are the same.
But then you need to ask a question. Whilst we cannot gerrymander the electoral system, is it possible that in some Boroughs the Conservatives could win the Mayoralty when they might not win the majority of Councillors? I am sure, with the changing demographics of London, that is a calculation Croydon Conservatives will have made. If Croydon were to prove to us that Conservatives can win in a Borough that has been drifting towards Labour for a considerable number of years and has the character of an outer/inner London Borough, then where else would this work?
We know the Government has now moved regulations to move all Mayoral elections to “first past the post” (FPTP). If you took the GLA elections and applied them to the Boroughs on an FPTP then the good news is we would win an additional six boroughs — Croydon, Sutton, Richmond, Kingston, Harrow and Enfield. However, we would lose Westminster. In fact, we would end up with control of 13 London Boroughs in total — probably the best haul for a few decades. The bad news is we would lose Westminster City Council to Labour.
Next year’s elections in the five Mayoral Boroughs will be watched, if only because we know that Michael Gove is something of a fan of Mayors. There are rumours that he would like to see more, especially the wider strategic Metro Mayors. This makes me wonder whether Gove might move to a default system of governance for councils of directly elected Mayors and actually use referendums as a tool to adopt some other system if residents want it. Whilst there will be many local politicians who would be against such an idea there are many voters who would welcome the clarity.