CROYDON COMMENTARY: For all the talk of introducing a directly elected mayor for Croydon, what’s been overlooked is the need to make every vote count, writes Green Party candidate PETER UNDERWOOD
There are lots of people in Croydon who are really annoyed at the council. I’m one of them. But electing a mayor instead of a council is a move in the wrong direction.
It seems that decision after decision at the council goes against residents’ wishes, and even when the council say good things they immediately contradict them with what they do.
They declare a Climate Emergency but still support expanding Gatwick Airport. They say they want to cut down on car use to reduce air pollution, but still support building a 3,000-space car park to suck even more traffic into central Croydon. They say they want to protect green spaces, but then hand them over to developers to build on.
This last issue of planning has really wound people up. We all understand the need for more homes, but instead the council is just focusing on building more properties. These are not homes for Croydon people to live in, they are just luxury flats that the people who really need somewhere to live can’t afford.
There is a belief that the reason behind these problems is that the council is dominated by three or four individuals who are making all the decisions – decisions that the majority of residents don’t agree with. So how do we fix this problem with local democracy?
Unfortunately, yet again the spectre of a directly elected mayor is being raised in Croydon. While I can understand that people are really unhappy with some of the actions of our council, the idea of putting all that power in the hands of one person is a move in completely the wrong direction.
Why do people who are advocating for a directly elected mayor think that that person would be any more popular or in tune with residents’ wishes than the current council?
When you are complaining about all the power being in a few people’s hands, how does putting all that power in one person’s hands make things better?
If we look at past results in elections for the Mayor of London, not one of the elected Mayors has ever got more than 50 per cent of the vote on the first round. That means every Mayor of London had more people voting for someone else, rather than for them. Why would Croydon be any different? Why would we not end up with a Mayor that most people didn’t want and didn’t agree with?
The other problem with directly elected mayors is that it is really difficult to get rid of them. There appears to be no mechanism in place for removing a Mayor of London, no matter how bad they are. At least in our current system at the Town Hall, political parties can follow the traditional route of staging an internal coup against unpopular leaders and voting in someone else instead.
So if electing a mayor isn’t the solution what other options are available?
Croydon currently uses a cabinet system, similar to national government, where the majority group splits the council’s responsibilities into smaller chunks and appoints a cabinet member to make decisions on each of those areas.
An alternative is to return to a committee system. Each of the policy areas is overseen by a committee of councillors from all parties who collectively make the decisions. This is the system they use in Sutton Council. The idea is that this will deliver decisions that take into account more views but, as Sutton residents will tell you, in practice, the party with the majority of councillors still just forces through what it wants.
This for me highlights the key point – if you want to look at improving local democracy you don’t start with how councillors are organised, you start by looking at how they got to be councillors in the first place.
On Croydon Council at the moment, the Labour Party has well over half of the councillors.
But far less than half of Croydon residents voted for them.
Collectively, Labour and the Conservatives have all of the councillors, but that means many thousands of Croydon residents who voted for other parties have no one representing them on the council.
What we need is a voting system that ensures Proportional Representation, or PR.
A PR system would have a number of advantages. The first is that it makes every vote count. You would know that you could vote for the party you really wanted to and your vote would make a difference. This puts power back in the hands of voters.
If every vote counted there would be no such thing as a “safe ward”. We currently have too many councillors who just rely on the fact that their party always gets elected in their ward. If we had a PR system then all councillors would have to show that they deserved your vote.
A key point would also be that councillors would be elected based on votes from across the whole of the borough – parties would have to work on building support across Croydon, not just rely on support in their traditional stronger areas.
As shown in the table above, a PR system would also mean that in Croydon no one party would have an overall majority.
On these results from 2018, Labour would still have the most councillors but they wouldn’t have had the power just to force through decisions. To get any decisions through council they would have to persuade some councillors from other parties to support, or at least not oppose, their ideas.
This would make it more likely that any decision would have greater support among the residents of Croydon and reduce the chances of the council forcing through unpopular decisions.
Bringing in PR at local elections would require a change in legislation at national level, but the support for this is growing. The Westminster system is similarly undemocratic (the Democratic Unionist Party has 10 MPs, with far fewer votes than the Green Party who have one MP), and the calls for a fairer voting system are growing ever louder.
Next May, we have elections to the London Assembly. This election does have a proportional element – it is why there are Green and LibDem Assembly Members – so make sure you vote and vote for the party you really support, as every vote will count.
- Peter Underwood, right, is the Green Party candidate for Sutton and Croydon in the London Assembly elections. He’s also been chosen to be the Greens’ candidate for Croydon South, in case Boris Johnson does decide to call a snap General Election
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