Elected mayors in Scotland: is now the time for Aberdeen’s Andy Burnham?

The elections of May 2021 were dubbed as “super Thursday” due to the sheer number of votes that took place across the UK. In addition to the 129 MSPs elected in Scotland, Wales voted for a new Welsh parliament, London got a new assembly and thousands of local councillors were elected right across England. Voters in England also voted for new Police and Crime Commissioners as well as directly elected executive mayors.

Compared to the messy English system of local government (with mayors, unitary authorities, parish councils and mord), Scotland’s local government is slick and easy to understand. Next year Scottish voters will be going to the polls to vote for councillors in 32 local authorities using the Single Transferable Vote. There’s a lot wrong with Scottish local governance but complexity isn’t it.

Upgrade Holyrood supports more powers for local authorities and has welcomed proposals to improve the system. Ballot Box Scotland’s blueprint is a fascinating and coherent suggestion to revitalise local democracy and empower communities in all corners of Scotland. But what about the possibility of introducing directly elected executive mayors (DEEMs) like in the England? Could the introduction of mayors invigorate Scottish local government?

It’s an intriguing prospect. Andy Burnham, a possible future Labour leader, has filled his boots as Mayor of Greater Manchester and has become a clear, local champion for the area. A directly elected mayor in Aberdeen or Dundee could play a similar role, pulling the political gravity away from the dominant central belt. The ability to give a face to a local political force, as well as the creation of one clear accountable individual for local issues, would be the main advantage of any reform.

But a directly elected executive mayor would fundamentally alter the nature of local democracy in Scotland.

Upgrade Holyrood strongly supports better representative democracy hence the support of Proportional Representation for Westminster elections, as well as better PR for Holyrood elections.

READ MORE: 12 Reasons to support Proportional Representation

Directly elected executive mayors would somewhat clash with these principles. Current council executives are derived from agreements made by parties who together make up a majority of seats. The executive is usually multi-party thanks to the Single Transferable Vote.

Directly elected executive mayors would put an incredible amount of power in the hands of one person (and party). Such mayors are very much in the tradition of majoritarian democracy which limits their ability to fairly represent all in government. Diversity of opinion is important and while an elected mayor could listen to other parties their input would be limited.

These are largely the same arguments against a directly elected executive president. Such roles are ultimately one-seat constituencies that consolidate power in far too concentrated a place.

That said, while there are significant risks with introducing such mayors, they could still be an effective democratic tool in Scottish local government.

Crucially, if such proposals were to be seriously considered by any future Scottish government, there are three principles that they should adhere to in order to retain good representative democracy and weaken risks associated with majoritarian structures of government.

The first is the principle of consent. Any proposals for directly elected executive mayors in say Edinburgh or Glasgow should be ratified by the people that the decision would affect. In practical terms this would amount to local referenda. As an aside there would be an intriguing dynamic if say Edinburgh voted for a directly executive elected mayor while Glasgow rejected such a proposal.

The second is the principle of ensuring widespread support for any successful mayor. In order to be as representative as possible, the most effective way to elect a single-member seat for a single-member institution (such as a local mayor or national president) is one that ensures the winner has majority support. While this does not ensure that every voice is represented in the executive role (which can only be done in multi-member positions), it does maximise representation and strengthens the legitimacy of any elected mayor.

What this means is that the voting system used to elect directly elected mayors should not be First Past the Post. The Home Secretary’s proposals to replace the Supplementary Vote with FPTP for mayoral elections is an absolute travesty that should be fiercely opposed. Elected mayors should have broad support – First Past the Post very clearly does not provide this. However, the Supplementary Vote is not much better. It ensures broader support than FPTP but tactical voting and speculation are embedded into it.

Any elections for DEEMs in Scotland should use a better system. One option would be a two-round system. Voters back their favourite candidate with an ‘X’ and if no candidate wins 50%+1 of the vote then all but the top two candidates advance to a second round. Voters then return to the polls at a second date to select their mayor. This system is used for French presidential elections, as well as for non-executive presidential elections around Europe. It ensures broad support, however, it has numerous problems. The first is that it’s time consuming and turnout can vary in different rounds – local government turnout is so low any way, this is probably not the best approach. The second fault of this system is that when multiple candidates do well enough in the first round, say 8 candidates each get around 10% of the vote. The top two could be ideologically very similar and both advance to the next round. This is a problem if the other six candidates have completely different views.

The best approach to electing any directly executive mayors is therefore an instant run-off system, which would be the Alternative Vote or STV with a district magnitude of one. Under this system, mayors will achieve broad support as voters rank candidates in order of preference.

The third principle is that local councils should not end up as glorified, sentient rubber stamps. That is to say that while DEEMs would render local councils solely legislative bodies, separating the executive from the legislature, they should be able to actively input into the mayor’s agenda and provide high levels of scrutiny. How this would work in practice is not my area of expertise but there are lessons to be learnt from countries around the world where executives are separately elected from the legislature.

Introducing directly elected executive mayors into Scottish democracy would drastically alter the nature of representative democracy in Scotland, which has trended away from majoritarianism. The broadly proportional Scottish Parliament and the 2007 switch to STV for local councils demonstrates this. That said, the suggestion is an intriguing one and could potentially enhance Scottish local democracy – but only with strict controls to ensure representative democracy and multiparty input.

Directly elected executive mayors are not actively supported by Ugrade Holyrood but the prospect is one to examine further.

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