Leading article: A poor example set by London

 

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Alongside the council elections on Thursday, some 10 British cities will be voting on whether they want an elected mayor. It is to be hoped that they all vote "yes". At their best, mayors are not only a dynamic addition to local democracy, they are powerful figureheads for their city's identity and can help to reinvigorate slumping public interest in politics.

It is unfortunate, then, that in London the race has proved so uninspiring. As the most high profile of Britain's elected mayoralties, the capital's campaign season might have been a shining example of all that is to be gained. Instead, it has been little more than a Punch and Judy show between the two main candidates – Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone – dominated not by considered debate on the myriad issues facing the capital and its residents, but by sniping over tax bills, swearing matches in lifts, and policy discussions that rarely rose higher than populist tub-thumping about the cost of travelling on public transport.

Hardly an edifying spectacle. In fairness, the blame rests, in part at least, on the degree to which the Mayor's power is circumscribed by central government. With no say over such hot topics as health and education, the vacuum is too easily filled by descending into personal jibing and triviality.

For the Government's plans for active city mayors along the lines of New York's Michael Bloomberg to come to fruition, more thought will need to be given to the powers of the office.

But there is also another lesson from the London race. As an independent in a field dominated by party stalwarts, the presence of Siobhan Benita is to be welcomed. Londoners certainly seem to think so: she is running third, by some bookies' reckonings. But Ms Benita has struggled to secure television coverage – and, therefore, to be heard – precisely because she is an independent running for the first time.

One of the strongest arguments in favour of elected mayors is their ability to break the stranglehold of the party system. Until the anomaly of Ms Benita's experience is addressed, efforts to jump-start flagging public interest have little chance of success.

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