Directly elected mayors: the English experiment

Most English mayors are elected in a similar fashion to most mayors in Australia: by ward councillors. But in May of this year 11 English cities participated in referenda to determine whether citizens should directly elect their mayors.

Asked would they like to change from the status quo and introduce direct mayoral elections, participants from the various cities answered as follows.

City Yes % No % Result
Birmingham 42.0 58.0 No
Bradford 44.9 55.1 No
Bristol 53.3 46.7 Yes
Coventry* 36.4 63.6 No
Doncaster 62.0 38.0 Keep
Leeds* 36.7 63.3 No
Manchester 46.8 53.2 No
Newcastle upon Tyne 38.06 61.94 No
Nottingham 42.5 57.5 No
Sheffield* 35.0 65.0 No
Wakefield* 37.8 62.2 No

One could hazard a couple of conjectures based on these results.

Firstly, people need to be given good reasons to make the shift from an existing political state of affairs. Of the 11 English cities participating in the referenda, nine rejected the change. In many cities the margin was close but change was still rejected.

Secondly, you will notice that the Doncaster result is ‘Keep’. Doncaster introduced direct mayoral elections in 2001, not long after the City of London. Despite already directly electing its mayor, Doncaster took the opportunity of the 2012 referenda to re-test public opinion. Of the 11 participating cities it showed the greatest support for direct mayoral elections. In sum, since first directly electing their mayor, the people of Doncaster have grown to like it.

So what does the English experiment tell us about our own foray into direct mayoral elections here in Geelong?

Our experiment was born of an election promise by Ted Baillieu and introduced late in 2011 after the Liberal Party won government. The government claimed that it was responding to ‘community requests’. But despite such claims, there is little actual evidence that the people of Geelong want to directly elect their mayor.

The best evidence of community support for a directly elected mayor comes from a 2011 Geelong Advertiser poll. Just over one thousand readers participated. 760 supported direct mayoral elections. As the Geelong West Branch of Victorian Labor made clear in a submission to the Department of Planning and Community Development, this is but a small fraction of the more than 220,000 people living in Geelong.

Yes, the sample might be small, but a result of 76% in favour of the change is a clear indication of support. We just never got the opportunity to truly test that support.

The people of Geelong never got a referendum. But if the reluctance for change evident in the English experiment is anything to go by, this ‘lost opportunity’ may be only thing that secured direct mayoral elections for Geelong.

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