1. Governance
April 11, 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 12:49pm

Britain’s mayors have real power. So why does nobody take them seriously?

By Rachel Holdsworth

Does the UK’s national media care about London? Do its politicians?

That may seem an odd question, given the London-centricity of both entities. But what’s truly odd is how much they ignore the person ostensibly in charge of the city: the mayor of London.

Commentators in the UK are currently scrambling over each other to tell us how awful Boris Johnson, the present incumbent, is. They point out the personal indiscretions, the lies, the lack of preparedness and commitment, the vacuum where policy and strategy should be. They tell us he is vain, incompetent, ambitious for power but not to then do anything with it.

Having watched Boris Johnson in City Hall for several years, I have to agree. But here’s the thing: none of this is new information. Almost all of it could have been said when he first ran for the mayoralty in 2008. Apparently it’s only important now that Johnson is jockeying for position in the race to become Conservative leader and then prime minister. When he was mayor of London? Nah, it was fine that he’s a lazy incompetent.

Labour’s Sadiq Khan is one of the candidates vying to replace Johnson as mayor in May. One of his main policy pledges is that he’ll freeze fares for four years – but how, exactly, is still unclear. Khan says he’ll “wage war on waste and inefficiency”, cancel vanity projects, and create new revenue streams (which will take several years to come into effect).

But what’s missing are figures. The current frontrunner to have control of an £11bn budget is putting forward an incredibly vague plan for how he would run London’s transport network.

Can you imagine a national politician getting away with that at a general election? Can you imagine any party’s policy unit letting a minister or shadow minister onto Newsnight without hard numbers? But it’s London, so it doesn’t matter. Hardly anyone in the media is scrutinising things anyway.

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Except it does matter. The mayor of London has significant control over transport, policing and housing in the capital, not to mention planning, culture, the environment and more. The person in charge should be smart, creative and energetic. The role should be attracting the brightest and the best.

Instead, for the last eight years the Conservatives have palmed the city off with a man they now say they always knew wasn’t really up to the job. The two main candidates this year are Khan, who still carries the suspicion he’s only running because Labour didn’t win the general election so he didn’t get a ministerial job; and his Tory rival Zac Goldsmith, who had to be badgered into it.

Given the disdain and general lack of interest from Westminster politicians and hacks for what happens with London’s local government, you’d be forgiven for thinking mayoralties have been written off as a dismal experiment. London can keep its anomaly, but otherwise we can forget the concept.

But it’s not so. Several major cities – Liverpool and Bristol among them – have had mayors for years. And the residents of most of England’s big metropolitan areas – the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Sheffield, Tees Valley and the North East, among them – may shortly be coming to terms with their very own “metro mayors”. (This, oddly, will leave both Bristol and Liverpool with two mayors apiece.) So will several rural areas (East Anglia, Lincolnshire).

Maybe voters will show the same reverence as the people of Hartlepool, who memorably elected the town’s football club mascot – a monkey – in 2002. (Stuart Drummond, the man behind H’Angus the monkey, held the office until 2013, when it was abolished following a public vote.)

Perhaps that’s the appropriate response. If politics isn’t willing to put its big hitters into mayoralties – to stop regarding them as a stop-off on the way to other things, or a place to shunt off irritants – then voters are hardly going to be enthused.

London’s had a mayor for 16 years and people still aren’t sure what the office is for – or even who it is (someone asked me the other day if it was Tessa Jowell). Running a city is a serious job; it’s time for serious candidates and serious thinking.

Rachel Holdsworth is senior editor at Londonist and tweets as @rmholdsworth.

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