An interesting political challenge is emerging to the Conservative Party on their Green Paper proposals for referendums in the twelve largest cities after London to have a directly elected city-wide Mayor. The cities are: Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Wakefield, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham, Newcastle upon Tyne. The proposals have received a very muted response from Conservative Councillors, who are in my experience generally sceptical of the elected Mayor model.
Spying an opportunity to suggest a rift between Conservative Councillors and the national party line, some commentators are already pointing out that referendums for elected Mayors can easily be held under current legislation. As the Conservatives are in control in Coventy and Bradford, and are the largest party in Birmingham and Leeds, why not push for referendums now in these cities?
The case for: It makes political sense to have the referendums and elections now, giving the Conservatives an opportunity to run high profile political campaigns at a time when they are riding high in the opinion polls. There are very marginal parliamentary seats in Birmingham, Leeds and Bradford, and to a lesser extent in Coventry, which an effective Conservative Elected Mayor, making the weather in supporting the local economy in these tough times, could help deliver into the Conservative column.
The case against: There will be limited enthusiasm from local Councillors and Associations, the referendums may be lost (which would be an embarassment) and if it takes place, the election of an Elected Mayor could have an unexpected and unhelpful outcome – remember the Monkey in Hartlepool.
I suspect that the Conservatives will not push forward with the proposals before the next election. This does leave them open to the political charge of double talk from Labour and the Lib Dems. It also feeds the suspicion that I have already heard that the Elected Mayors policy is a gimmick that will be dropped if the Tories are in power, not least because their chances of seeing Conservative Mayors elected will have shrunk. A few years into a Conservative government it is most likely that the Lib Dems and Labour would be fighting it out in the cities slated for a Mayor, with the possible exception of Bradford, and subject to the dynamics of local contests, where independents or minority parties could make a strong showing.
At the heart of the political problem is the contradiction in the Green Paper thinking. Being genuinely localist surely means that national politicians should leave it to their local political colleagues, and ultimately local communities to make decisions that are best made at the local level, including the model of local government and political leadership.