Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nae Mayor

Long-term advocate of elected Mayors, Ross Martin, asked in Wednesday's 'Hootsmon' whether there was room at the top for 'strong leadership' (i.e. Elected Mayors)in Scotland's cities. In his piece (behind the paywall, sadly) he asks us:

“Do we have a single political personality to match the gung-ho dynamism of New York's former leader Rudolph Giuliani, the bold character of a Boris Johnson or the direct political purpose of a "Red Ken"? These city leaders make a real difference when they combine their own character with real political power. Sadly, our city councillors simply don't have that political power to impose themselves and their programmes in the same way that these leaders of real world cities do.”

Now, regardless as to whether we do or don't have similar 'personalities', some might question whether having all-powerful characters like these at the helms of our cities would be in any way a good thing - some people like me, for instance. Those same people might also question the value of comparing Scotland's cities to London, Paris and New York rather than to cities closer in size like Oslo, Bilbao or Stuttgart. However, that's by and by – Martin's objective was clearly to pick high profile examples of Mayors in action so as to illustrate his point about individual leaders being able to put their stamp on a city.

An old favourite argument then rears its head. I paraphrase, but it runs something like this:

London's elected Mayor was instrumental to the introduction of congestion charging, which has been a good thing. Edinburgh doesn't have an elected Mayor, and its former Labour administration failed to bring in congestion charging. Therefore, to get anything big done, Scottish cities need elected Mayors.

As arguments go, it's plucked straight from the political school of thought that says 'we need to do something, this is something, therefore we must do it'.

The argument regarding congestion charging shows a certain lofty contempt for voters. Firstly, it's by no means clear that Edinburgh's congestion problem would have been solved by a deeply flawed toll scheme. The way the 2 cordons were drawn, when I lived in Edinburgh I could have used the car all week around town for work and leisure without ever once paying a toll, but would have been stung any time I returned home after leaving the city.

It was only ever proposed to try and part-fund a third tram line, and given the complete balls that TIE has made of the first one, thank goodness their ambitions were constrained. In the end, our existing system worked perfectly to reflect opinion – there was a lack of unanimity in Edinburgh City Chambers, and Edinburgh folk saw through the PR guff and voted accordingly in the resulting referendum. Frankly, the idea that all we needed was an Eric Milligan with executive powers to get us to see the merits of what was being proposed is insulting and preposterous in equal measure.

The concept of elected mayors plays to the fallacy of the strong political leader, who bestrides their bailiwick like a collosus, sweeps away opposition and pointless bureacracy, galvanises opinion, builds partnerships and inspires us to ever greater civic heights. It's a technocratic, rather than a democratic argument, which ignores what happens if, rather than this shining specimen of civic virtue you instead elect an incompetent rascal to preside over an emasculated local authority. It also, surprisingly for someone like Ross Martin with a background as a Labour 'moderniser' in local government, ignores what our existing structures allow us to do.

Back in the 60's and 70's, Edinburgh was a drab and declining city, with the Edinburgh Corporation a byword for dull conservatism. The District Council which replaced it wasn't much better, and despite the presence of young talents in council politics over that time like Alastair Darling, Malcolm Rifkind and George Foulkes, it took a dynamic group of Labour councillors at District and Regional level (they were New Labour before the term was invented) in the early 80's to get the city moving.

Daft projects like the Western Relief Road were killed off and the regeneration began of gap sites, particularly around Lothian Road. Gradually, through the 80's and 90's, Edinburgh regained her dynamism, and without having anything like the government financial support available to other cities over that time, managed to develop significant assets like Cameron Toll and the Gyle Shopping Centres, Edinburgh Park, the new Financial District, the Festival Theatre and the EICC.

Eventually, this cadre ran out of steam. Keith Geddes left the council and narrowly missed out on getting elected to Holyrood, before making a career in quangoland and in PR. George Kerevan concentrated on academia before turning to journalism and crossing over to the SNP. Angus Mackay, once tipped for a glittering career in local government, saw his future in the Scottish Parliament and made it to Finance Minister, before being knifed first by Jack MacConnell and then by the electorate of Edinburgh South.

Without people of similar calibre, Labour limped on for a few more years, with ideas no more inspiring than building pointless guided busways, painting bus lanes green and excavating to create some more retail space under Princes Street. When PR was introduced, they were cut back down to the minority status their support had long merited, and a new administration emerged with a mandate to clear up the mess that he been left behind. In other words, Edinburgh's experience, shows that dynamism, while cyclical, can be created and sustained by group effort, without the need for a single all-powerful leader.

If we want dynamic cities, we need ideas, a group of people to take them forward, and an engaged electorate prepared to reward the virtuous and vanquish the scoundrels. If Edinburgh, or any of our other cities are experiencing a long-term lack of direction, what we need is a decent debate about the role that cities play in the lives of their residents and all who come to work rest and play there, the nature of the services that their local administrations provide, how different sectors can work across boundaries for the common good, how to work towards economic and ecological sustainability in the present environment and perhaps most important of all, rethink what people can do for themselves and others in terms of building a strong social fabric.

It strikes me that the best way to bring that about is to have a more pluralistic political culture which encourages more diverse voices. Reducing a city to a single powerful voice and concentrating power in the hands of officials, no matter how well intentioned they might be, is unlikely to create the cacophony of diverse voices and ideas that we need. Having elected Mayors – a kind of Lord Provost on steroids - will not do a thing to improve our governance, nor will they provide the momentum to change our cities for the better, since the factors required for this are far more complex than simply putting an Admiral with shinier medals on the bridge.

Nae Mayor, Ross – put this idea back in the box.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Unintended Consequences?

I see that Hamish Macdonnell is busy arguing in today's Hootsman that by making independence a key issue at the next election, the SNP risks scaring off those voters who backed the party last time but who didn't want a vote on full self-governance. Now, Hamish is a smart fellow, but by regurgitating the conventional wisdom on this point, he's in danger of missing a trick. A couple of tricks, even.

Here's why. Despite the perpetual spinning to the contrary from politicians and talking heads alike, a referendum on Independence is backed not just by those who want independence – it's also backed by those of other opinions who want to see the question put or who simply would like the right to choose. That's why support for a referendum commands heavy majority support, even if independence itself might not.

Now, the reason any bill won't pass right now is because the majority of unionist MSPs won't back a referendum, as it is their right to do. Yet the parties those same MSPs are elected on behalf of are prepared to back referendums on AV and on further powers for the Welsh assembly. It's impossible to argue for referendums on those matters but not independence without leaving yourself open to a charge of hypocrisy.

Even if you're agnostic on the referendum question, the contradiction is apparent. If you feel strongly enough about it, then that's a pretty good recruitment sergeant for the SNP. After all, what politician ever lost votes by making it clear they trusted the good sense of the voters to decide an issue for themselves? Or put it another way – what politician ever gained votes by telling voters that they should butt out of an issue and leave it all to the grown-ups to decide for them?

However, here's the killer for Hamish's argument. Through their entrenched opposition, might our unionist politicians not be making it easier for unionists to back an SNP government whom, the independence issue notwthstanding, they might actually hold in high regard?

Think about it. By going into the next election pledging to vote any referendum bill down, then any subsequent unionist backsliding on the issue notwithstanding, voters who don't want either independence or a referendum will almost certainly be spared the prospect. As such, they will be as free, if not freer than they were last time round to vote SNP, safe in the knowledge that the SNP won't be able to deliver a referendum alone.

Ah, the law of unintended consequences. Dontcha' just love it?