Ben Rogers: Save London’s directly-elected borough Mayors!

Ben Rogers: Save London’s directly-elected borough Mayors!

Twenty-one years ago, London began an experiment in mayoral governance. First, in 2000, we got a new, directly-elected Mayor of London. Two years later, in 2002, electors in three London boroughs – Lewisham, Newham and Hackney – decided in local  referendums to replace their existing local government models – under which they elected councillors who then elected the council’s leader – with their own directly elected mayors (DEMs). In 2010, those boroughs were joined in adopting the mayoral model by Tower Hamlets. But on 6 May 2021, as well as electing a London Mayor for the sixth time, the people of Newham and Tower Hamlets will vote in new referendums about whether they want to retain their borough’s own mayoral systems or replace them. Abandoning them would be a step backwards, not only for the two east London boroughs concerned but also for democracy in London generally.  

The alternatives to DEMs on the two boroughs’ referendum ballot papers are different: in the case of Newham, voters can choose to adopt the old Committee System of “executive arrangement” whereby committees of councillors have decision-making powers, whereas in Tower Hamlets the option for replacing the DEM system is Leader and Cabinet model, which gives the council leader greater power within the governance structure, including usually his or her choice of cabinet members. But in both cases, the power to decided who actually leads the local authority and is therefore directly accountable to them is taken away from voters and put in the hands of councillors instead. 

Rejecting borough DEMs would not only be regrettable in itself, it would also send the wrong signal nationally. Never mind that Boris Johnson was a big critic of centralism when he was London Mayor, the instincts of the national government he leads seem the complete opposite. If Shaun Bailey does as badly in the current London Mayor race as the polls suggest he will and the Conservative Andy Street is defeated as Mayor of the West Midlands, the government is likely to be looking for excuses to weaken DEMs or abolished them completely.

The story of Mayors in London and elsewhere begins with Tony Blair, whose Labour government elected in 1997 began establishing them in order to shake up local government. Proponents argued that the then-predominant Committee System, especially when combined with first-past-the-post voting that tended to give the most popular political parties inflated majorities, had too often proved a recipe for opaque, cronyistic and unaccountable local governance. A mayoral system would make for more visible and authoritative leaders, directly answerable to voters. It also had potential for attracting new talent into local government – people deterred by the party politicking that the status quo encouraged. 

The mayoral model was not introduced with boroughs and other smaller local authorities in mind. It was designed first and foremost to strengthen the leadership of major cities. But London boroughs proved early adopters. There were four borough referendums altogether in 2002: Newham, Hackney and Lewisham voted in favour of adopting Mayors with varying degrees of decisiveness while Southwark was 70 per cent against. In 2010, Tower Hamlets voted 60-40 in favour.

Each of the “yes” authorities was of a similar stripe. All were east London boroughs that had suffered as a result of the Blitz, modernist planning and the decline of London’s docks and manufacturing. All were in desperate need of investment and regeneration. And all had long histories of Labour Party domination. Unlike in the original referenda, we can now assess the performance of borough DEMs and compare it to what went before or the way things have unfolded in other boroughs during that time.

So how have they done? Inevitably, not everything has gone to plan. In 2015, Lutfur Rahman, the first Mayor of Tower Hamlets, was controversially removed from office by an election court for “corrupt and illegal practices” – though that perhaps says more about the peculiar nature of Tower Hamlets politics than it does about directly-elected mayors. Of wider significance, the mayoral experiment has not so far done a great job of opening up local democracy or attracting new talent. Of the borough Mayors elected to date, seven have been men (the one exception being Rokhsana Fiaz, pictured, the current Mayor of Newham), six have been white (Rahman and Fiaz being the exceptions), and all have come from within the ranks of the Labour Party.

But in other respects, the reforms have proved their worth. First and most obviously, the new system won the boroughs that adopted them some badly-needed stability. Most of the mayoral boroughs had seen leaders come and go in quick succession in the years before they adopted the mayoral system. Each has had only two Mayors since. Over the same period, Barking & Dagenham and Haringey have had three leaders, Waltham Forest four, Southwark and Camden six, Barnet seven and Redbridge eight – though to be fair, the leadership of these boroughs seems to have stabilised in the last decade. 

In each case, the borough Mayors have, arguably, used the clear mandate that direct election gives them to drive through change in their councils, encourage more joined-up working with other local services and agencies, and to speak up for the borough on the London and national stage. In the run up to the 2012 Olympics, both Jules Pipe in Hackney and Robin Wales in Newham used the added authority that direct election bestows to broker favourable deals with central and London government – Andrew Adonis, schools minister under Blair, has said he felt more confident working closely with borough Mayors than he did with indirectly elected counterparts, mainly because he knew they were in a position to follow up on their commitments and unlikely to be suddenly toppled by local political machinations. 

London’s borough Mayors certainly seem to have gained more London and national profile than your average borough leader: Hackney’s first, Jules Pipe, was elected chair of cross-party body London Councils before going on to become Sadiq Khan’s Deputy Mayor of Planning, Regeneration and Skills – arguably the biggest job in London after that of the London Mayor himself. Robin Wales already had a knighthood when he became the first Mayor of Newham in 2002, but Steve Bullock got one while Lewisham’s first Mayor and Pipe got a CBE. 

It is, of course, hard to find any objective measure of borough quality, but from 2002 to 2010, before it was abolished by David Cameron’s government, the Audit Commission assessed local government performance. Lewisham, Newham and Hackney all moved up the rankings. Among other things, the three initial mayoral boroughs scored particularly highly on Audit Commission surveys asking residents whether they could influence decisions affecting their local area: 42 per cent of Hackney residents, 46 per cent of Newham’s and 37 per cent of Lewisham’s, all of which were well above average for London boroughs. Hackney, which not long ago had a reputation as one of the worst run councils in the country, was voted council of the year in the 2008 Local Government Chronicle awards, and was runner up in 2009 and 2010. And while London boroughs as a whole improved, the mayoral boroughs did noticeably well.

The mayoral model also seems to attract voters to the polls. In the 2018 elections, the four mayoral boroughs saw an average turnout of 38 per cent, compared to 35.7 per cent for the surrounding boroughs of Redbridge, Waltham Forest, Islington, Greenwich, Southwark and Barking & Dagenham. 

The first directly elected mayors had all been council leaders. Their successors feel cast from a slightly different mould. Phil Glanville and Damien Egan are both young and strongly communitarian in their politics. You can almost imagine them running for the Greens, which is certainly not true of their predecessors. On being elected Newham Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz set up an independent Democracy Commission and appears to be acting on its recommendations – not something you would expect from a more traditional Labour borough, where the party has generally been seen as democracy enough. 

It’s important to acknowledge that London has many talented indirectly-elected borough leaders, running impressive councils. And the mayoral model no doubt has its weaknesses as well as its strengths – we probably need some creative ways of giving councillors in mayoral systems more responsibility, perhaps through passing more power downwards to wards and neighbourhoods. But all in all, directly-elected Mayors have served their boroughs well. It would be a mistake to abandon them. provides in-depth coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources, plus special offers and free entry to events. Click here to donate directly or contact for bank account details.


Categories: Comment

1 Comment

  1. A S says:


    You claim if the DEM system is changed “the power to decided who actually leads the local authority and is therefore directly accountable to them is taken away from voters and put in the hands of councillors instead.” This is only theoretically true, as the leader of the Labour group (or other expected winner) is likely already determined. The same politician carries on as head honcho of whatever the system is.

    I accept you have a slight point about giving the government more excuse to try to jeopardize the London mayoralty, but we’d have to deal with that at the time – the needs of the borough come first in a borough referendum. In any case, by the same principle, they’d have to give us a referendum on that issue. And if it were changed to, say, a committee system, well we’d just be back to before Thatcher abolished the GLC, but we’d still have a democratic body for London.

    In Newham’s case, we had an autocratic, short-tempered, vindictive (and crypto-Tory) propagandist who engaged in social engineering by demolishing existing communities to replace with those who made the statistics on deprivation look better, and imposed his will by distributing favours – reducing cllrs without a cabinet or other post almost to mere spectators – most were either on the payroll vote, or aspired to be so, so kept in line. He had to be removed, deploying desperate tactics, from yet again being the Labour candidate, by Labour members. You’ll find it difficult to find anyone in Newham to put the the case *for* retaining the DEM. And it is DEMs that lead to the most “opaque, cronyistic” regimes.

    Some corruption no doubt exists in all councils, but the more patronage you give the top dog, the easier it is to get away with it. So, that Rahman was able to get so far before he was brought down, was because he was in such a powerful position. If he had been a mere Leader, he could have been deposed by the Labour group long before.

    Many of the criteria you cite as evidence of improvement are distinctly weak:
    – supposed “stability” is always double-edged – dictators often provide “stability” – DEMs are just more difficult to dislodge
    – the London mayor can choose whoever they want as directors, even mere ‘Leaders’
    – that some borough mayors get baubles from the ‘honours’ system is hardly a factor in their favour, unless you are one
    – LGC awards are not an objective measure of how good a council is – councils have to spend effort to enter those competitions, and DEMs are likely more keen on entering, for reflected glory
    – the turnout figures show ever such a slight difference, and such elections allow more votes anyway, including a second choice for mayor. Maybe national elections could boost turnout by changing the electoral system too.

    The Democracy Commission set up by the new Newham mayor was a commitment *caused by* Labour members’ reaction against the behaviour of the previous incumbent. And Newham had a one-party state council much of the time before the DEM, and still has – if anyone else did win a council seat, they’d have more influence in a committee system. In practice, it’s not the people who decide on the mayor, it’s the borough’s Labour party members – Labour would win the mayoralty or leadership or whatever the role was.

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