The Tories are currently bleating their heads off about how they are all for bringing politics and the exercise of political power to the people. Local democracy is, they shout ever louder, the order of the Tory day. In the vanguard is Manchester, where a mayor and a “cabinet” is to have the responsibility for the spending and administration of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on public transport, social care and housing as well as police budgets and, most dramatically, ultimately the devolving of all NHS spending for the region. When the process is completed local politicians will control more than a quarter of the total government money spent in Greater Manchester.
The political structure to support the mayor will be this:
“The mayor will lead Greater Manchester Combined Authority [GMCA], chair its meetings and allocate responsibilities to its cabinet, which is made up of the leaders of each of the area’s 10 local authorities.”
This is to be known as a city region. The mayor will not be an absolute autocrat and can have both his strategic decisions and spending proposals voted down by two thirds of the GMCA members – go to para 8. Onn public service issues, each GMCA member and the Mayor will have one vote, with a policy agreed by a majority vote. However, the mayor will have considerable powers and the requirement for over-ruling him on strategic decisions and spending – two thirds of the GMCA members – is onerous to say the least. That will be especially the case because the councils of the Manchester city region are largely Labour and the mayor, at least to begin with, will also be a Labour man.
The casual observer might think this is a democratisation of English politics. But wait, was not Manchester one of the nine English cities which firmly said no to an elected mayor in a referendum in as recently as 2012? Indeed it was. Manchester voted NO by 53.2% to 46.8% (48,593 votes to 42,677). Admittedly, it was only on a 24% turnout, but that in itself shows that the local population generally were not greatly interested in the idea. Nonetheless, 91,000 did bother to vote, a rather larger number of voters to ignore. Moreover, low as 24% may be, many a councillor and crime and police commissioner has been voted in on a lower percentage turnout.
After the 2012 referendum the Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese said the vote was “a very clear rejection” of an elected mayor by the people of Greater Manchester while the then housing minister Grant Shapps said no-one was “forcing” mayors on cities. Three years later that is precisely what is happening to Manchester, well not precisely because Manchester is to have an interim mayor (see para 11) foisted on them without an election, who will serve for a minimum of two years and a maximum of four years before an election for a mayor is held. (The period before an elected mayor arrives will depend on how long it takes to pass the necessary legislation, create the necessary powers for the mayor and create the institutions on the ground to run the new administration). When the time comes for the elected mayor the interim mayor, if he wishes to run for mayor, will have the considerable electoral advantage that incumbency normally brings.
Sir Richard Leese, now promoted to be vice chairman of Greater Manchester Combined Authority, has had a Damascene conversion to the idea of a mayor:
“It was clear that an over-centralised national system was not delivering the best results for our people or our economy.
“We are extremely pleased that we can now demonstrate what a city region with greater freedoms can achieve and contribute further to the growth of the UK.”
The interim mayor will be appointed on 29 May by councillors meeting in private. There are two candidates, Tony Lloyd and Lord Smith of Leigh. Both are Labour Party men. This is unsurprising because the body organising the appointment is the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, (AGMA) which is comprised of the leaders of the 10 councils making up the region. Eight of them are Labour. The job description for the interim mayor included the provision that he must be a politician from Greater Manchester˜ with a proven track record of achievement at a senior level in local government. These requirements made it virtually certain that both candidates would be Labour politicians.
The exclusion of the public from the appointment of interim mayor is absolute. Here is Andrew Gilligan writing in the Sunday Telegraph:
The two candidates for mayor have published no manifestos, done no campaigning, made no appearances in public and answered no questions from voters or journalists. Last week, The Sunday Telegraph asked to speak to both candidates. “Hed love to,” said Mr Lloyd’s spokesman. “But he’s been told he’s not allowed to talk to the media.”
A spokesman for Lord Smith said: “He can’t speak about it until it’s over.”
Perhaps as a result, the “contest” has been barely mentioned in the local press and has gone completely unreported nationally.
His precise salary, predictably, is also not a matter for public discussion. It is being decided by an independent remuneration committee which meets in private and whose members’ names have not been published.
Judged by the mainstream media coverage there has been precious little public dissent about this gross breach of democracy from influential Westminster politicians. Graham Brady, Tory MP for Altrincham and chairman of the 1922 Committee, has said:
“questioned whether the process was within the bounds of propriety”, saying that any arrangement which gave the interim mayor,two or even up to four years to establish a profile and a platform for election would clearly be improper and unfair.
But that is about it and the appointment of the interim mayor carries on regardless.
Part 2 of this articles continues the theme here.