If we didn’t have the local elections, we would need to invent them. It’s an opportunity – a valuable one – for political campaigners to listen to what the voters are saying and reflect on what they tell us. I’ve heard it loud and clear on the doorstep for weeks: Liverpool has had enough of being run by an elected mayor.
Time and again, it came up, reflecting what many of our party members across Liverpool and a sizeable part of our controlling group on the council also believe. There are three problems as I see it. The first, is that too much power rests at the centre with a single individual. At first, we thought this would be a positive – helping take decisive action to turn our city around after decades of decline. And, partly, we were right. The mayoral model has meant that decision-making is quicker and more decisive.
This is fine when the decisions taken are the right ones. But we know that’s not always going to be the case. Until last year, I served as Joe Anderson’s deputy, so I’m in a good position to not only praise him for so much that he has achieved as mayor of the city, but also to recognise when something now needs to change.
We’ve seen in rows like the proposed development of part of Calderstones Park, just how few checks and balances we have in place to stop a bad idea from gaining ground, before common sense prevails. (It took a petition of more than 50,000 ordinary people to get the mayor to see sense and drop his plans).
Perhaps our greatest achievement as a Labour administration since we took back control of Liverpool in 2010 (and one frequently cited by the mayor himself) was to build or substantially renovate 22 new schools after the Tory/Lib Dem coalition pulled the plug on us by scrapping Building Schools for the Future.
Under Joe’s leadership, we put together a funding package that allowed us to take control and develop the schools ourselves. The crucial point is that this was achieved before we switched to the mayoral model in 2012, when we had the standard leader and cabinet model. We simply don’t need a mayor to be bold.
The second problem is that the freedom to take executive decisions needs to be tempered with the responsibility to consult, persuade and to bring people and communities along. So much that is wrong with our politics in this city is that there is precious little consulting and persuading and too much bossing and demanding.
Diktat not dialogue is how it comes across to people in the city. It also leaves councillors as spectators when it comes to the running of their own city. Democratic adornments while key decisions about the city take place on the Fourth Floor of the Cunard Building.
The third problem is that there is a risk the mayor’s personal ‘brand’ become synonymous with that of the city. While it can be useful to have a single figurehead when it comes to dealing with investors, it is not vital. Although Andy Burnham is the mayor of the Manchester City region, the renaissance of the city over the past 25 years has been led by Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council.
Widely respected and with an inclusive style, Richard has probably achieved more than any civic leader in the country on the very model I am urging my colleagues in Liverpool to return back to.
Moreover, if Liverpool is to have a single mayoral figurehead, it is better that this is our city region mayor, Steve Rotheram. At the moment, Liverpool has mayoral overload, with a metro mayor, a city mayor, a lord mayor, three deputy mayors and an assistant mayor. Neither do we need to see our city mayor pulled into noisy spats on Twitter, or offering opinions on Everton’s starting eleven.
The mayoral model in Liverpool is no longer fit-for-purpose. What we need now is a style of leadership that brings people together. Less confrontational and needlessly divisive. No more personality politics and diktats from the centre. More open and collegiate.
We need to relearn lessons that we have forgotten. The leadership of the council needs to engage with communities to win its case. No more instructions from on high. A new model for a new chapter in the life of our city. This is best achieved by returning to having a council leader and cabinet.
Councillor Ann O’Byrne is the former deputy mayor of Liverpool and deputy leader of Liverpool Labour party.
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