England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

It’s all eyes on the metro mayor prize


Suddenly our Westminster politicians seem very interested in the local jobs, writes Janet Sillett. Maybe these Johnny-come-latelys to the regional scene sense a shift in power, but they must prove their local chops if they want to be metro mayors.

“The confirmed candidates for the new ‘metro’ mayors are all blokes” (Headline in Guardian G2 24th May)

Well, yes, that may be right, and it may be significant, but it could easily have been ‘the confirmed candidates for the new metro mayors are all MPs and former MPs’. That may not be the full story – but it seems that only MPs who want to become mayors get any coverage.

Let’s look at a few of these future contests. Greater Manchester – the three main contenders seem to be the current PPC and acting mayor, Tony Lloyd, a former MP, Ivan Lewis a current MP, and now, of course, Andy Burnham MP.

We are told in the media that Luciana Berger, a Liverpool MP, is seriously considering running for the mayor of Liverpool City Region. Walton MP Steve Rotherham has said he will bid to be the candidate but he had been a councillor previously. However, there are potential candidates who are not MPs – St Helens council leader, Barrie Grunewald, has said he is going to be standing as the candidate. And, the current elected mayor of Liverpool, Jo Anderson, is vying for the candidature. So this one is certainly a one to watch. In the national media there has, so far, been little about anyone but Berger. The local press is interested in all the potential candidates.

And of course Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith were MPs when they stood for London mayor – though London is rather different from anywhere else and has always attracted national politicians.

So should local government be happy that at last there is a role in local government (is it local or is it regional or sub national – well, not central anyway) that is seen to be so important MPs will consider leaving Westminster and standing as a candidate. This is not unprecedented – Sir Peter Soulsby for example moved from Westminster to be mayor of Leicester – but he had been council leader before becoming an MP.

There is a very positive side to this – that these MPs recognise that an elected mayor of a metro city region will have power and authority, which a backbencher or even a shadow cabinet member lacks. And in some respects potentially more power than some cabinet members. Mayors will be seen to be leading their ‘places’ and to get things done – even if constrained by the lack of fiscal devolution and by the harsh financial climate.

But why does the media in particular assume that MPs have some sort of divine right to become mayors – even those with no experience at all in local government? That these major and important cities and their residents should be grateful that an MP is willing to leave the centre of power to ride to their rescue? That’s a bit harsh, but you get the meaning.

One labour organisation (Progress) website puts it like this – ‘these directly elected mayors provide a platform to change lives, and showcase both achievements and leadership nationally in a digestible, media friendly way’ – highlighting that national politicos are continuing to see metro mayors in terms of their impact on the national stage as being as important as their impact on their communities.

Andy Burnham argued when launching his bid that Labour must field its “biggest names” for mayoral jobs: “The mistake Labour made in Scotland was that when devolution came, we didn’t field our biggest names and consequently it looked like we didn’t take it seriously enough. We can’t make that mistake again.” Again it seems to imply national politicians are inevitably the right people – the biggest names are the most suitable for big jobs.

What seems to count for not very much in the eyes of the media and of national politicians is experience at the local level as a council leader. The biggest name in local government’s history must surely be Joseph Chamberlain – the mayor, then leader, of Birmingham. His story of Birmingham’s municipal renaissance is a local story, from when he became a councillor in 1867, with his massively ambitious plans for public services and town improvement schemes, which totally transformed the city.

So, perhaps despite the current attention on MPs becoming mayors, this could be a moment of change in the balance between the local and the national. Firstly, that there is a recognition that the local and the regional really do matter and that it is actually a promotion rather than sidelining for an MP to step up to being a mayor. Secondly, that devolution will gradually shift the attitude of Westminster to sub-national government. Already it has had to try and adapt to the changed political landscape in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (though not necessarily always too successfully); so might it now need to rethink its relationship to newly confident city regions, metro mayors and leaders of combined authorities? As the Guardian recently put it:

“The idea that a prospective prime minister might have to display a record of administrative competence and policy innovation in a lower tier of government is not intrinsic to our political hierarchy. Yet in many other democracies mayoralties and federal governorships are respected routes to the top.

“It is not too far-fetched to suppose that the devolution plans quietly unfolding across England’s cities and regions will trigger a culture shift along those lines. There is ample evidence that Westminster is viewed with suspicion, as a rarefied circle of politicians whose careers are defined by too much talk, not enough action; too much time in corridors of power, not enough pounding streets. It would be no bad thing for the legitimacy and credibility of politics if a generation of leaders were to emerge that cares less about ministerial cars and more about local buses.”

Does Joseph Chamberlain provide a role model here – entering Parliament in 1876 and by 1895 he had become Secretary of State for the Colonies. The new mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, may be a new kind of role model in the future – though why should local government lose its best people to national government when we know it’s the regions and cities where it is all going to be happening!

Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s briefings manager.