25 November 2011

Back in May we suggested that the rejection of AV made elected city mayors the most important constitutional debate of this parliament. That debate is now beginning to hot up around the country.

In May next year around five million people, across eleven cities, will get the opportunity to vote on whether or not they want a mayor to run their city. Up until now the only people involved in the debate have been government employees and enthusiasts. Big debates within seven days in Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol show that people in cities are starting to get interested as well.

Last night 100 Liverpudlians gathered in the terracotta-clad Victoria Building at Liverpool University (the original “red-brick”) to debate the idea. Andrew Adonis, director of the Institute for Government, and other pro-mayor panellists argued mayors would benefit from the additional soft power commensurate with a city-wide direct electoral mandate, allowing them to “cajole, co-ordinate, lead and lobby” for the city. Professor Jon Tonge, arguing against mayors, stressed that the government has not yet pledged to give the mayors any additional powers. One audience contributor took the argument back to basics by demanding “What will this mayor actually do for me?” Almost everybody, including Jon Tonge, were in favour of a Merseyside-wide regional mayor, along the lines proposed by Michael Heseltine and Terry Leahy. On the issue of a mayor for the city of Liverpool however, a straw poll at the end showed the audience were evenly split.

At the same time around eighty civic minded Brummies gathered at the Hyatt hotel in Birmingham. After the debate an overwhelming majority voted in favour of a mayor for the city. Many in the audience wanted to move beyond the yes/no arguments to talk about exactly how the mayor would work in Birmingham, how the mayor could help small businesses to grow, for example. Julia Higinbottom, from Yes to a Birmingham Mayor, is proud to point out that young people made up a majority of the audience and that this was definitely not a gathering of the “usual suspects.” The Birmingham Post has also commented on the demographic divide in the debate in Birmingham: “While the no campaign is fronted by a pair of middle-aged, seasoned front line politicians, the yes camp is a broad church of media, business and public sector workers.”

Never one to be outdone, next week Bristol will hold a day long debate on the issue as part of the Festival of Ideas with speakers including local business leaders, academics and even Ken Livingstone.

It’s great to see the cities beginning to give this issue the attention it deserves and if last night’s debates are anything to go by, we’re set for a lively, dynamic, citizen led campaign. Let’s hope that gets the other 4.99 million voters engaged!


I am generally in favour of elected mayors and our research at Norhtumbria University has resulted in a positive verdict on what mayors have achieved so far. On balance I would favour one in Newcastle (where I live) but it seems, according to Andrew, that I am practically alone. Am I?