The Mayors of London get ridiculously generous media coverage. Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, of Conservative and Labour accordingly, are figureheads of city politics. Boris is the incumbent, pandering to the people of the capital, but Ken remains on the side-lines, ready to pounce on any of his rival’s slip-ups. It makes for a somewhat entertaining display of policy and ego. Local governance is in many ways less significant than central governance and is somewhat trivialised. Of course, the present government is attempting to decentralise and devolve powers to local councils, making the following issue all the more relevant. When local politics come to mind, you might imagine the corrupt Simpsons character, mayor Quimby, a slimy and deviant bureaucrat.
The city of Bristol is for the first time considering having its own mayor. Given Bristol’s brief history as a centre of regional power, it’s understandable that it hasn’t already got a mayor; only in 1996 was it declared a borough of its own. Since then – since before then – we seem to be playing catch-up with everyone else. So what exactly is this role? Don’t we have MPs who are elected to represent us on a local level already? Is the mayor a crucial cog in the political structure, a diplomatic ambassador to the city for foreign enterprise, or a ‘dictator’, who surpasses democratic processes at an unnecessary cost to the taxpayer?
Actually, introducing a mayor would make the city more democratic, argues Christina Zaba from the Mayor for Bristol campaign. Bristol City Council is headed by the Leader of the Council, who is elected from within the institution, whereas a mayor will be selected by Bristol’s residents. She says: “Unless we take the steps to get our own mayor, the other cities which do could leave us behind. This is a change in local government for the whole country, a change involving a strong voice for core cities in Westminster. If Bristol votes against a mayor, we won’t be there in that Cabinet of Mayors in the Government – our interests won’t be promoted. We could come to regret not having taken this chance to have a mayor when it was offered.”
In Brighton (this author’s hometown), the mayor is paraded around the place to be shown off at local events, and can be seen wearing the usual gold chain (which weighs a ton, by the way, £300k worth of solid gold) with proud self-importance. Apart from that, her duties seem unclear. Although she has a supreme position, these powers are used sensibly and reservedly. One would hope so anyway. She is useful for encouraging investment in the city, which is supposed to create jobs and boost the economy. Yet she is not necessarily accountable, or even that visible, as the Mayor for Bristol campaign insists ours will be.
Perhaps we’d be wise to elect a mayor, not for the novelty value of having a ‘face’ for Bristol, but because we’d be streamlining our politics. Currently, anywhere that sports a mayor is represented on a panel of mayors, when all British mayors come together for an annual meeting at which the prime minister will be present. Because we don’t have a mayor we don’t have access to this event. And Bristol must be missing out on this. That seems ridiculous, given that Bristol is a major city of the South West.
So just how advantageous would this change be? Should we continue to let the council elect their own leader or do we want to opt for a mayor instead? The roles are pretty much the same; check out the City Council website for a breakdown of the differences, but the decision of who runs the council is subject to shift.
On 3 May the polling stations will open for Bristolians to have their say on the issue. Voters will be given a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice as a measure of popularity on this referendum – to keep things the way they are, or open up the council for additional voter-say – remember, the councillors are elected already. If the change does happen, don’t expect to meet your mayor for at least another year.
There has been a lot of dissent in Bristol lately; recently College Green has become a soapbox for the mayor debate, not to mention a platform for the global Occupy movement as well. With any luck this change will be an answer to the cries of discontent from West Country protesters. A mayor should be “someone with passion, imagination, talent and drive to lead us and to get decisions made, attract investment and jobs for Bristolians, sort out the city’s long-term problems and help Bristol be an international, thriving, 21st-century city”, says Zaba. While it might make people more motivated by politics, it’s going to be difficult to bring all of the city’s problems onto the shoulders of one individual. But at least then we’ll have someone to blame for our woes.
We all have an idea of what a mayor should be like, whether you’re imagining the petty squabbling of Boris and Ken, or Quimby in the Simpsons, they are supposed to represent the local people. Let’s just hope that the outcome of this referendum is for the better, and that if we do decide to bring the matter into the hands of the locals, we’re not foolish enough to elect our own Quimby.
By Jake Sydenham
Should Bristol have a directly elected Mayor? Join the debate on Wednesday 2 May at Frenchay Campus in room 1R026 from 13.00 – 14.00. For more information visit: http://www.uwesu.org/events/6013/782/