LEADING ARTICLE: Someone worth calling mayor

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The Independent Online
Margaret Thatcher's premiership, in the way that she dominated both the executive and legislature, made her more presidential than any other peacetime British leader. Tony Blair, it seems from today's interview published opposite, intends to follow her example. We can expect him to focus attention and power on himself. Under him, prime minister's questions would be held once rather than twice a week, with the premier answering questions in prearranged subject areas. The event would be intended to promote grown-up, dignified politics - cool but tough questioning - and reduce the traditional tendency for abusive exchanges in the Commons bear pit.

Mr Blair's plans for local government are more radical. He would introduce directly elected mayors, breaking with the British tradition that governmental chief executives - be they prime ministers or council leaders - are elected by legislative representatives (MPs or councillors).

He is not the first serious politician to put forward this proposal in recent years. It is no coincidence that it was first championed by Michael Heseltine, that other presidential figure in British politics, who in the mid-Eighties sought to reinvigorate local government.

The mayoral system is familiar across the Atlantic and in many European countries. Every American city has its elected mayor, with specific powers and responsibilities which do not require the endorsement of elected councillors. The same is true in France, where mayors have real powers that can turn them into national figures. Alain Juppe, the French Prime Minister, remains mayor of Bordeaux. Jacques Chirac gave up being mayor of Paris only when he was elected President.

This new system, though foreign to Britain, offers a potential cure for the moribund nature of local government. At last voters, who rarely know even the names of their councillors, would be able to identify a single individual - a Mr London or Ms Sheffield - as responsible for the quality and cost of services. Such mayors would enjoy a serious mandate and their presence would make councils more transparent and accessible. A mayor would also have the authority to resist the intrusive tendencies of central government.

In theory at least, this system could allow a candidate to circumvent, Ross Perot-style, the tyranny of British political parties which have such a stranglehold over councils. This is born out by a recent poll indicating that Richard Branson, rather than a party figure, would be the people's favourite for mayor of London (followed, incidentally, by Ken Livingstone). Opening up politics in this way would be progressive: when elites are able to run a closed shop, they inevitably become complacent and degenerate. In Britain, the professionalisation of politics has produced a breed of leaders at local and national level who often seem out of touch. The decline of parties has progressively reduced the pool of available talent from which our political leaders can be chosen.

It is worth remembering, however, that mayoral systems are open to corruption and one-party rule. There are plenty of examples of machines controlling American cities: the Daley family has turned Chicago into a fiefdom. And Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington who was jailed on drugs charges and then re-elected, is no advertisement for the probity of the office.

In short, it would be naive to conclude that introducing city mayors would alone prevent the monopolisation of power by some of the incompetents that have run a number of councils in recent years. But the Heseltine- Blair idea could offer a route to a more accountable system that would put voters back in the driving seat of local government.

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