20 April 2012

Peter Kellner used his recent David Butler Lecture to make the case against direct democracy. The YouGov President argued that referendums sometimes rely on public debate of inadequate quality, favour the status quo, and offer the electorate only a crude choice. How do current mayoral referendums stand up to his charges?

Kellner criticised the quality of the debate in the run up to the AV referendum, describing it as ‘frankly pathetic.’ Perhaps most disappointing was the extent to which the arguments on AV centred around cost. Disappointingly, cost issues have also taken on a disproportionate prominence in the mayoral debates. Claims and counter-claims about million pound price-tags and six figure salaries have been traded incessantly. Greg Clark is now refusing to pay for Bristol Council’s information leaflet on mayors, saying it is misleading on this front. On the other hand, credit is due to organisations like Bristol Says NO who have provided a fastidious and relatively sober analysis of the figures. An important point which has been overlooked by all sides is that, given we are definitely going to be having elections for Police and Crime Commissioners every four years, the marginal cost of holding mayoral elections at the same time will be very small indeed.

Fundamentally however, the problem with all these arguments about cost is that they deal with issue in a vacuum, rather than comparing costs with benefits. Kellner cites polling evidence which found that when respondents were told the annual cost of a TV Licence and asked if they thought it was good value for money two thirds of respondents said no. Another survey first asked if respondents were satisfied with the service provided by the BBC (prompting them to consider the benefits) and then asked if the cost-per-day of the license fee was value for money. Two thirds of respondents said it was!

The pro-camp argue that direct election is inherently more democratic. The anti’s argue that the concentration of power it implies makes it less so. This argument seems like a blind alley; democracy is too much of a general term to determine which system is “more democratic.” Perhaps it would be more fruitful to ask which system creates the most democratic accountability. In which system will the executive be most responsive to voter preferences and most clearly exposed to the judgement of a critical constituency? At times the democratic arguments have verged on the inconsistent with some people arguing that the council-leader system is preferably due to being more democratic and complaining that the cost of mayoral elections would be too great. You can’t have your democracy and eat it too.

The most disappointing thing about the debate so far has been the lack of attention given to some of the more subtle, but perhaps more important points: mayors superior capacity for government which co-ordinates, shown by research from the official government evaluation, the Warwick Commission and my chapter in What Can Elected Mayors do for our Cities? and their ability to unlock further decentralisation argued for in articles by LGC and Open Democracy. The way that news outlets have chosen to emphasize a different message from this research, often one which aligns with their own position, shows how hard it is for more nuanced messages to reach the public.

Kellner’s second charge is that referendums favour the status quo. He points out that most UK referendums have resulted in a ‘no’ vote; this is the case in 27 of the 42 mayoral referendums so far.

Conservative strategists have gone on record

this week saying that more than one city switching would be considered a ‘bonus’. It is true that several of the ‘no’ campaigns in the mayoral debates have used arguments that it would somehow be a risk not worth taking, or ‘is is not within the British tradition.’

Congestion charging is an interesting example of possible status quo bias in referendums. Edinburgh and Manchester both held referendums on whether to introduce a congestion charge and in both cases three quarters of people voted ‘no’. In London, Ken Livingstone simply imposed one. The table below shows net support for a congestion charge among Londoners in a series of opinion polls. What’s interesting is that Londoners were mildly against a congestion charge until they had one, at which point they loved it.

2002 2003 2003




2003 2003 2003 2005 2006
Net support

% points

0 -5 -2 +30 +19 +35 +20 +5 +33

Kellner’s last charge is that referendums necessarily offer a crude take-it-or-leave-it choice to voters. There near universal consensus among the pro and anti camps, that a mayor covering the wider city-region area would be desirable. Unfortunately that offer is not on the table.

To conclude, the debate has been of mixed quality, sometimes careful, often less so. The disproportionate emphasis on costs has been disappointing and possibly misleading. The jury is out on whether the status quo has been favoured by the use of a referendum, but we can say with confidence that the choice on offer is crude. Seeing town hall debates organised across the country has been brilliant but with polls suggesting that most people in Leeds and Birmingham still don’t know the referendum is happening, it’s hardly a revival of local democracy. The defenders of the referendums have some work to do.

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