Cities and Local Government Bill report back

The Government’s plan to impose Mayors where they were previously rejected is progressing apace in Parliament. Fairly unusually for a controversial Bill, it has started out in the Lords.

Our Lib Dem team, led by John Shipley, is seeking to make three campaigning points about the Bill. First, that if areas are to have powerful Mayors imposed upon them, these should be scrutinised by directly elected assemblies, as in London. Secondly, that all of local government should be elected by STV, ending modern rotten Boroughs. Thirdly, that the franchise for these (and all other) elections should be expanded to include 16 and 17 year olds.

Assemblies
It really is quite amazing to hear Labour and Tory voices when they are asked not just to say that democratic accountability is a good thing but to support a means by which to achieve it.

The Mayors the Government wishes to impose will head up combined authorities whose members will predominantly be senior councillors (usually leaders) from the executives of the constituent councils. These leaders are therefore supposed to act as both judge and jury – taking executive decisions in concert with the elected Mayor and then scrutinising those same decisions in a very weak overview and scrutiny process. Labour and Conservative Peers alike seem to be saying they have no problem with this.

Lib Dems have argued that if Mayors are to be imposed, then the very least electors should expect is a small assembly to hold them to account. Yet both other parties obsess over “another layer of government”, neatly forgetting that there is already to be another layer of government in the form of an unaccountable Mayor. A central tenet of liberalism is to rail against concentrations of power, so we will continue to make the case that Mayoral power should at the very least be subject to some directly elected scrutiny. Why should the London goose get more accountability than the Northern Powerhouse gander?

Electoral Reform
Because the Bill is explicitly about the governance of local authorities, we have found it is ‘in scope’ to propose amendments to the electoral system for the whole of local government. The Conservatives remain hopelessly unsusceptible to persuasion either by the compelling democratic case for reform or by the fact that their own interests would be served by it in so many Labour “one-party states”. Labour remains unwilling to give up fiefdoms in return for a share of influence in those parts of the country where they are unrepresented. So much for one nation. They would do well to read Lewis Baston’s excellent pamphlet The Labour Case for local Electoral Reform. (pdf)

Votes at 16
On this, we are likely to make more progress. Labour have been signed up to Votes at 16 for some time, so together our two groups in the Lords can make the running on this with the government, just as we intend to in respect of the EU referendum. We are also moving joint amendments on the Cities and Local Government Bill, advocating an expansion of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds for all local elections. Of course, a full expansion to all elections is our true objective, but moving on local elections would be a step in the right direction and would reflect the position in some German Länder where the voting age for local government is lower than that for general elections.

The team will keep members up to date, through LDV, as the Bill makes progress through the Lords, and goes on into the House of Commons

Paul Tyler is the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Lords on constitutional reform issues

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