The overwhelming message on mayors from the big cities was ‘no’ today, with just one city out of 10, Bristol, opting to have a directly elected mayor – although Doncaster opted to keep its mayor, despite the holding of that referendum having been a rallying cry for ‘no’ campaigns.
So, apart from it being a very bad day for the Coalition, what can we take from today’s results?
First, the disillusionment with politics flagged in Policy Exchange’s recent Northern Lights report is clear. While local election turnout is rarely high, it was less than a quarter of the voters in Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham. Nottingham had one ward where only 8% voted. This should send a strong message to national and local politicians of all parties that they need to do far more to generate debate, engage with local voters and show how local politicians affect daily lives.
Second, the Government messed up a critical opportunity to promote directly elected mayors. There have been some speeches but too few people even knew that there were mayoral referenda in their cities, let alone what the pros and cons might be. And although campaigns such as Yes2Mayors worked hard to get the message out, by not nailing its colours to the mast and spelling out the powers that will be afforded to mayors, the government has missed a major chance to convince voters that mayors could make a difference in their cities.
Third, the geography of our politics has become even clearer, with the North and Midlands – which continue to suffer most in this slow recovery - even more dominated by Labour. It’s notable that two of the mayors who were elected were both Labour, in Salford and in Liverpool. We’re still waiting for the London result as I type, but it’s looking closer than originally predicted – and if it’s Ken who’s elected then the Coalition will have had an appalling urban result.
The attention now has to turn to what happens next. For those cities that voted yes, the focus over the next six months will be the mayoral elections in November. Candidates need to set out what they would do, how they would support local economic growth and what extra powers they’ll need, as well as working to engage a generally uninterested electorate.
For other cities, the focus will be on City Deals and taking actions to support the local economy. And it’s vital that the government stay committed to supporting the prosperity of cities regardless of which way they voted. While David Cameron warned that the mayoral referenda were a choice between joining the race or falling behind, Nick Clegg’s reassurance that the further devolution of powers would not be contingent upon cities voting yes was welcome.
Ultimately, it’s strong and accountable leadership across the right economic geography that matters most for a city’s prosperity and in the new era of localism it must be recognised that this will come in different forms across different places. Greg Clark needs to be a Minister for Cities and not a Minister for Mayors.
In the longer run, we would like to see leadership at a city region level – ideally ‘Metro Mayors’, especially for England’s largest cities. And they should have real powers and funding, tailored to the particular needs of each city.
Cross-boundary working, as demonstrated by the combined authority in Manchester, is a good step in that direction. All mayors – and city leaders – need to work with their neighbours to make sure decision-making is coordinated and that the economy remains the priority. But if the UK is to have more mayors, it’s down to the government to set out why mayors would make a difference and what powers they would come with – otherwise it will be the same old story in any future referenda.