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Yes Mayor!


By Vincent Carroll Battaglino

Trends in governance structures come and go, but with America welcoming “Mayor Pete” as Secretary of Transportation, we are reminded that the singular personality of mayor is rather un-British. In English and Welsh law, it’s a New Labour invention. Before 2000, local authorities used the committee system. The Local Government Act 2000 removed this, replacing it with leader-and-cabinet committee and establishing the possibility of directly elected mayors in single authorities if it was confirmed by a referendum. Referendums can be called by petition or if the council feels like it. This is distinct from the combined authority mayor concept, which requires its own legislation, and has enjoyed a resurgence recently, with eight being introduced since 2017.

Nationally, of the 53 referendums on the mayoral question, only 16 have led to it being implemented, and three of these have since ditched it. Considering the list of approvals and rejections, there isn’t any correlation or trend with geographical or political factors apart from the basic fact that Conservatives don’t go in for mayors, and are far more likely to plump for a committee system (allowed again since the Localism Act 2011, do keep up). In this article we consider the prospects for the directly elected mayor system in London boroughs because three referendums are on the horizons.

There are four boroughs with the mayoral system: Hackney, Lewisham, and Newham since 2002, and Tower Hamlets since 2010. Three others rejected the concept in 2002: Ealing, Harrow, and Southwark. Ironically, Ealing and Southwark ended up with classic mayor-style long-serving leaders.

The upcoming referendums:

Tower Hamlets

The saga of this borough is by now legion. The mayoral system came about there through a concerted push by the Respect Party, eventually catapulting the singular personality of Lutfur Rahman into the role. In November 2020, the council committed to hold a referendum on the governance system. The initial driver appears to have been the local Labour party, with current mayor John Biggs’ conversion to the cause made easier by his almost certain retirement at the next election. Conservative councillors as well as Labour’s Puru Miah had argued for a range of options on the ballot paper including hybrid or committee systems, but the statutory position is that only a binary choice is possible.

More interesting in this referendum is that it has provided the ideal opportunity for a return to frontline politics for Rahman. None of his successors really cut through like he did, and he is eligible to stand for election from this year. But first, he wants to keep the mayoral system:

With a good majority of wards under its control, and Rahman waiting in the wings, Labour in Tower Hamlets would be well-advised to campaign strongly for a return to the leader-and-cabinet model, take that as a win and see it as another step in normalising the systems of the borough. It’s easy to forget how narrowly Biggs won the 2015 re-do mayoral election and how much the 2018 win relied on a PATH/Aspire split and the tacit support of other opposition parties.


Unlike Hackney and Tower Hamlets, Newham’s reasons for going mayoral aren’t entirely clear. With Robin Wales leading the borough for a combined 23 years as leader and then mayor, it seemed to lend some credence to the traditional objection to the mayoral system: that it puts too much power in the hands of one person (there was much good-natured ribbing in local government circles).

Rokhsana Fiaz finally ended Wales’ reign by beating him handily in Labour’s candidate selection battle after he was triggered. Fiaz made a referendum on the governance model a key plank of her selection and election campaigns in 2018. In 2019 councillors agreed to hold the referendum at the same time as the 2020 London mayoral election, now taking place on 6 May 2021, of course.

The Labour party in the borough is split on the issue, but the borough may well vote to revert just to avoid being referred to as a kingdom ever again. With the Newham map 100 per cent red for the foreseeable future, this is unlikely to make any tangible difference to outsiders.


Like Hackney before it, Croydon’s mayoral referendum will happen under the cloud of the borough’s bankruptcy. The highly organised DEMOC campaign was formed in February 2020 and a petition of around 20,000 signatures calling for a referendum was presented in September. Croydon’s Section 114 notice was issued in November, though in August the finance director said she could not guarantee that a Section 114 report would be avoided.  

Despite the best efforts of the government the referendum will be held this October rather than in May, with new leader Hamida Ali claiming this will allow the council to secure a balanced budget before discussion on the referendum takes place. If the borough votes to move to

Croydon Conservatives are backing a mayoral system with good reason: wouldn’t you if you were only 4,697 votes behind borough-wide in 2018 and your opponent had just overseen disaster? This represents the best chance of the Conservatives regaining a London council since the city’s Labour trend accelerated in 2014. Much like the Hackney situation in 2000-2002, DEMOC and the Conservatives will claim the mayoral system is better for politician accountability, and would mean avoiding sleepwalking into disaster. But the potential gains for the Conservatives are massive.

Timelines and practicalities

Changing your system of government is not as complicated as it sounds, with only a few months planning needed. Hackney’s referendum was January 2002, the first mayoral election May 2002; in Tower Hamlets the referendum was May 2010, the election October 2010. The Localism Act 2011 tells us that changing the system requires a resolution by full council, and for officers to make preparations. Clearly this will include drafting a new constitution, but good templates exist. The Act also stipulates when the change will happen if a council is moving away from an elected mayor set-up: at the next scheduled mayoral election. For London boroughs that is 5 May 2022, so any departing mayors will have a year to get their affairs in order, whether it be finding a safe seat into which to slot, or retiring from public life. For moving to a Mayoral system, the election must be held within six months of the referendum.

Will more follow?

This being politics, the reasons for change are only two: because something has gone badly wrong and you’ve been forced to, or electoral self-interest. Hackney 2000 and Croydon are examples of the former. Tower Hamlets 2010 and the three removals of the mayoral system are examples of the latter (major parties had failed to monopolise the position). It’s hard to argue the mayoral system didn’t play a large role in pulling Hackney back from the brink. While campaigners could make the “but we’ve now sorted ourselves out so let’s go back to before” argument with any mayoral system, it’s unclear that will be convincing enough. In Phil Glanville and Damien Egan, Hackney and Lewisham have two young-ish personable chaps who seem to fit the mayor mould without the “fixer” baggage of Wales. As the prospect of east London contagion emerged, Glanville argued that transparency was better in Hackney’s version of the mayoralty than in a “who’s up, who’s down” leader-and-cabinet system.

In Lewisham, a 2017 campaign to ditch the mayor focused on dubious claims of cost.

Ultimately the question of governance systems is a red herring. Systems don’t change outcomes or prevailing cultures: in that, those arguing for reverting to previous systems will find themselves bitterly disappointed. A committee system is not inherently more democratic than any other, nor a mayoral system inherently more dictatorial. The idea that a cabinet system spreads power is a fundamental misunderstanding of how political parties work: a mayor still requires assent from their group, cabinet collegiate responsibility is a feature of all systems, and any credible leader would instantly dismiss a cabinet member breaching this principle. Cabinet and full council meetings are dreary, scripted, and pompous wastes of time with pre-determined outcomes whether the head honcho is called “leader” or “mayor”. The opposition only gets “more of a voice” in a committee system in a very literal sense that they can speak more on the webcast; they don’t take or influence decisions. The mayoral system may allow for easier masking of weak leadership and chaotic group dynamics by dint of the fact that the mayor can dominate the airwaves if nothing else – but that’s more my hypothesis than an fully evidenced conclusion.

The place to watch is clearly Tower Hamlets. If the mayoral system stays, there’s a good chance Lutfur Rahman will make a strong run for mayor in 2022. Anything can happen, and Labour is not necessarily out of the woods there yet.