Labour must reclaim its rightful place as the champion of elected mayors

After the electoral massacre of the AV referendum last year, constitutional reform may seem like the last thing on voters’ minds right now. However, despite the crumbling state of the UK economy in the face of savage Tory cuts, the structure of democracy has again come to the fore in the early days of 2012. Plenty has been written on what is fast becoming a constitutional crisis in Scotland. This is allowing a different kind of reform, one that may affect and improve the lives of the average citizen far more, to slip under the radar; that of elected mayors.

It is vital to claim this territory back as a Labour policy. It was Labour that introduced the very idea of directly elected mayors through the Greater Authority London Act of 1999. This was followed by the Local Government Act of 2000, which for the first time allowed the option of directly elected mayors for councils around the country. For all the coalition’s talk of decentralising power, it was Labour that pioneered this proud tradition.

The position of London mayor has proved a huge success. Whoever has held the post has acted as a figurehead for the city, bringing both accountability and publicity that has been good for democracy and tourism. However, in the spirit of the current media narrative, the party must accept its failings with elected mayors. The largest authorities to boast mayors outside London are currently Leicester and Middlesbrough. Major cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds have never even held referendums on the issue.

That is all about to change. On the 3rd May this year, these four cities, along with seven others, will hold referendums on whether to elect mayors. Labour should wholeheartedly embrace and support these campaigns. It may be a coalition policy, but elected mayors allow the party to consolidate its support in areas which regularly send numerous Labour MPs to Westminster. The opportunity to present candidates that can be figure heads for the cities forgotten by an increasingly southern-centric Tory party cannot be missed.

It is not only to the advantage of the party and the voters to have a directly elected mayor for their city. London has undoubtedly benefited from the status a mayor provides, further sharpening its image as the beacon of British culture and prosperity. Our cities in the Midlands and the North have much to offer. The regeneration of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester has been a joy to witness over the past decade, and the history and culture they boast is comparable to that of the capital. However, with the Tories in power, these cities need more to maintain their impressive rise.

Constitutional reform, as we saw with glaring clarity last year, may not be ‘sexy’ or high on voters’ priorities. However, mayoral elections allow citizens a greater say while giving Labour a chance to solidify support in the country’s great cities. One of Britain’s crowning glories is its healthy democracy. And more of that can only help make Britain even better.