In a referendum on 7 October, residents in Croydon voted overwhelmingly to follow Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Watford and replace the “leader in cabinet” model of local government with a directly elected mayor, to be elected in 2022.
The referendum was put after spending and housing scandals, created by years of Conservative local government cuts, engulfed the council. Democ (the campaign for a democratically elected mayor of Croydon) presented a petition of 20,000 signatures to the council leader calling for the system to be changed. Though the referendum was initially supported by both Labour and Conservative politicians, the local Labour party campaigned against the change.
Much of the talk in the campaign to replace the leader-in-cabinet system focused “taking back control”, accountability and democracy. However, the new system is less democratic and less accountable.
A directly elected mayor, unlike the council leader, cannot be removed by the council, and can end their term early only by resignation.
The Conservative party essentially sees the move as a back door entrance to control over the council. The council has been Labour controlled since 2014. North Croydon tends to vote Labour and south Croydon, Conservative. The Tories claim this has led to half the borough being ignored. The subtext is that they believe that a directly elected mayor increases their chances of electoral success.
Across the country, directly elected mayors have already been disastrous, with the Tower Hamlets’ mayor lavishing £850k a year on his office. Liverpool council will vote on whether to retain the mayoral system in 2023. Nottinghamshire county council and Sheffield have returned to the more democratic committee system, which is how all councils were run until 2000 and the Local Government Act.
The committee system divides governance among committees drawn from the council. The public can see the agendas and minutes from meetings and has a right to attend, giving more oversight. There is a leader, but as a constitutional position, rather than an executive one. The power of the council is diffuse under this model rather than centralised, as it is under both executive-mayor and leader-in-cabinet.
As socialists we fight for the deepest democracy possible, to give people the most control over their lives: opposing both cuts and attempts to slash democracy in local government.