Power to the people: Elected mayors could give Personality to local government

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The Independent Online
Go to Birmingham, Manchester or Newcastle-upon-Tyne and it's as quiet as Calabria. Local Labour activists are observing the code of omerta.

Labour councillors ought to be fuming. Since last May, ministers from their own party have cut their grants, moved to take away what is left of their control of schools and social services, excluded them from the new regional set-up, screwed their spending caps down, all the while badgering them in Thatcherite tones about efficiency and effectiveness. And the response: not a cheep.

Yet the silence is not too much of a puzzle. Those councillors know their capacity to say boo to Tony Blair and his Cabinet is constrained by their own parlous position in the public's hearts and minds. Teresa Stewart, veteran Old Left leader of Birmingham, knows full well that a word out of place would have Alastair Campbell rifling through his dictionary of party put-downs: but would that matter if she could mobilise Handsworth and Aston? Lord (Steve) Bassam, leader of Brighton, is not just constrained by his mint-new peerage but by the distinctly ambiguous attitude towards his council of the residents of Kemp Town.

For every opinion poll showing people value local self-government in principle, councillors daily drown in a sea of apathy, tinged with harsh criticism of the services they provide, from pavements to public housing. The fact that under Thatcher councils lost power is a ready excuse but not a convincing explanation. The bigger reason is that the way local political business is conducted sits ill in the culture. All those drafty halls and smoke-filled rooms smell of yesterday. When was the last time you heard a reference to council affairs in Albert Square or The Street?

Councillors get by on sufferance. Out there, there is no enthusiasm for what they do. Tony Blair knows that. It's because they know he knows it that the municipal silence of recent months has been so resounding. And that's also the reason why Labour councillors - currently so dominant in the local scene - have no choice but to respond enthusiastically to the revivalist programme for local democracy presented the other day by John Prescott.

Even before - see Glenda Cooper above - he went to humiliation at the Brit Awards, the Deputy Prime Minister had been practising his Sixties hits by giving his green paper the title "power to the people". If you are a councillor comfortable in your committee, his recipe for plebiscites, Klieg lights and mayors could look mighty threatening. But at this moment in time you have no choice to pick up the Government's suggestions and run with them.

Labour councillors know - if they have any political intelligence at all - that in these circumstances Prescott is the best friend they have got: there is a swarm of bright young things in No 10 already thinking the unthinkable about getting rid of councils as we know them. The education minister Stephen Byers, tipped for the top, is a fierce critic. The social services minister Paul Boateng says councils are members of the fingertip club. The choice is stark. Either councils change radically or they face extinction.

But now the Government has dangled a life-line in front of them in the shape of its proposal for elected mayors. This is essentially about trying to inject Personality into local public administration, to give local people a means of identifying subjectively with grey procedure.

At present local government is a charisma-free zone. After you have recalled Joe Chamberlain "gassing and watering" Birmingham in the last century, T. Dan Smith in Newcastle in the Sixties and Ken Livingstone at the GLC in the early Eighties, big figures are hard to find. (Smith may have taken a bung or two, but for a few years at least he gave Geordies real pride in their city's civic identity).

The mayoral office, invested with executive power and subject to direct elections, might attract people with pulling power. We may not be very impressed with the names mentioned so far in connection with the Greater London mayoralty (with the exception, perhaps, of Glenda Jackson who is reported to be on the point of announcing her candidacy), but there is no denying the frisson of interest it has excited. And that is not just, the polls confirm, among professional chatterers. Ordinary Londoners have actually been heard talking about their self-government! (I know. I heard them myself on a bus in Clapham the other day.)

Of course the cult of personality does not offer much to the municipal mavens who have toiled away for years in their surgeries and committees. But without Personality, what prospects do local authorities have in a television age, when the public space has shrunk and people are decreasingly willing to spend time and energy on collective endeavour?

There are other, imaginative proposals in John Prescott's paper and in Lord Hunt's experimental arrangements Bill, now before the Lords. They ought to be eagerly seized. It won't do for councillors to ring their hands and worry whether, even if they did miraculously reinsert councils into the public's political imagination, the central government would ever respond by entrusting them with more powers.

The point is that they have no choice. Further reduction in their powers is already on the New Labour agenda. Education action zones, special committees to run social services, further moves to turn councils into mere agents of the centre in (the phrase is used in No 10) managing the underclass: that is their fate. Take an example from Monday. There was the housing minister Hilary Armstrong sending a shot across council bows on rents. They were collecting less, she complained - and in the background is the threat that Labour (following the Tories) will expropriate councils and end their role as large-scale property owners.

Councils have only one place to go. Call it, as Prescott did, "modernisation", call it the revitalisation of local democracy. The predominantly grey- suited, middle-aged men who control Labour locally have to get up and go. If they had sense they would straightaway badger ministers with their own proposals - for proportional representation and the end of single- party hegemony, for active recruitment of younger people, user-friendly procedures, sleek, telegenic mayors. If that sounds like a collective suicide note, so be it. Only by throwing themselves on the Blairites' bayonets can the old guard ensure local democratic self-government survives.