According to a Survation poll, 55% of Croydon voters want a directly elected mayor. As our political editor WALTER CRONXITE notes, that’s bad news for Tony Newman
Tony “Soprano” Newman’s attack against one of the borough’s three Constituency Labour Parties may stem from the result of an opinion poll conducted last Thursday, the day of the local elections, which found that more than half of Croydon’s voters want to have a directly elected mayor in the borough.
The result of that survey is a wholesale rejection of the current “strong leader” and council cabinet system, under which £53,000 per year Newman uses public money to dispense patronage in return for lap-dog-like loyalty from Labour councillors.
Later this month, 68 of Croydon’s councillors will gather in the Town Hall to applaud their new Mayor (this year it is to be Labour appointee Bernadette Khan), and her deputy in a Trumptonesque pastiche that is so very local government.
Other London councils – Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets – have a more modern mayor. Their mayors are elected by the people. And they have had that very modern mayor for nearly 20 years.
These four modern mayors are elected directly by the voters and hold powers that Croydon’s strong leader has. The difference between directly elected mayors and strong leaders is that the mayors are empowered by the accountability and endorsement that direct public election allows, where every vote counts.
When our newly elected councillors sit down in the Town Hall chamber, among all the quasi-Medieval flummery of out-dated ceremony, they will be invited to take a serious decision. That decision is to surrender all their powers to just one fellow councillor, a “strong leader”, who will then have total discretion on what decisions to devolve back to councillors or to unelected officials.
There is a view, widely held, that the concentration of power in just one person through an indirect election via a college of electors (the 70 councillors) weakens democracy.
This is especially so when the voters in all but 15 of those 70 council seats have little prospect of overturning large, embedded majorities for one or another of the two largest political parties.
As last Thursday’s elections showed, based on the 28 new wards, in Croydon there are 47 council seats which have stomping majorities of more than 30 per cent. There are 20 council seats which have majorities of more than 50 per cent.
The governance of the council was an issue in the election, centred around the non-accountability of the council’s professional staff, and how much – or little – the council listens to residents.
Survation, the pollsters, in combination with their exit voter preference poll, asked residents:
“Some boroughs, such as Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney, have directly elected mayors. Other boroughs do not have directly elected mayors. To what extent would you support or oppose Croydon having its own directly elected mayor?”
Residents were overwhelmingly in favour of the idea – which amounted to a huge vote of no confidence in the way the council is currently governed.
When Survation crunched the figures, 55 per cent were in favour of having a directly elected mayor.
Only 16 per cent were against.
There was support for the idea among all age groups. Support among younger voters (under 35s) was 64 per cent.
And Labour voters were most likely to support the idea.
Yet still more than 50 per cent of respondents who said that they would vote Conservative supported the idea.
Effectively, last week’s local election was determined not by the way Tory voters in Coulsdon or Labour voters in Thornton Heath voted. The outcome depended on four marginal wards, where in a borough where more than 300,000 people live, the votes of 1,568 determined who would run the council for the next four years.
The councillors so elected, at the first full council meeting of this administration on May 23, will opt for the “strong leader”… meaning that the vast majority of electors are disenfranchised by their remoteness from this election.
In a directly elected mayoral system, every vote would count equally, from Purley to Upper Norwood. Having an elected mayor would remove from the group leader the £1million a year of public cash used for patronage, in the form of salaries used to keep councillors on-side. As Newman’s churlish rants have shown, woe betide even the mildest of criticisms – because what Newman can hand out, he can take away, too, with sackings and the loss those generous “Special Responsibility Allowances”.
No wonder Croydon voters feel that it is high time to change Croydon Council’s governance. And no wonder Newman is feeling more than a little worried.
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