Once, countries competed. Now, cities do. Take the above video of Stockholm, boasting about being the best place in the world to live and work. As the magician says, ‘it’s not a coincidence’ that the Swedish capital is doing well. It’s an example of all that can go right in a city, thanks to the power of elected mayors. Since 1920, Stockholm has had a variety of powerful leaders who have shaped the city with their own vision. As the magician explains, it’s a great place to live.
It’s not just Stockholm that has benefited from a good municipal leader. Plenty of other cities are thriving without help from their national governments. In this week’s Spectator magazine, I look at the rise of mayors around the world, including George Ferguson of Bristol and Boris Johnson of London, and how doling out more powers and accountability might be the solution to restoring trust in politics:
‘Londoners (there are more of them than Scots and Welsh put together) can argue that Boris has made more of an impact on their lives than David Cameron. And this is with the Mayor of London having fewer powers than most mayors. He is one of many from around the world — Tony Tan in Singapore, Yury Luzhkov of Moscow and Wolfgang Schuster in Stuttgart — who argue that the city is the optimum government unit.
‘Some go even further and believe that empowered mayors are the only hope of restoring faith in politics. In his book If Mayors Ruled the World, the American political theorist Benjamin Barber argues that mayors are the remedy for opaque and disconnected political institutions. Nation states are ‘indisposed to cooperation’ and ‘too inclined by their nature to rivalry’, he says. But cities can do what the states and nations cannot. In other words, we ought not to look to David Cameron and Barack Obama for visions of the future — we should look to Boris and Bloomberg.’
One of the fundamental reasons people like mayors is because they are more independent, less ideological and more personable than most politicians. Although voters generally distrust everything to do with politics, it’s not entirely uniformed. As the politicians get more local, their trust levels increase. YouGov carried out some polling last year where almost double the number of people stated they trust local MPs compared to senior officials from the European Union:
Sadly, directly-elected mayors have never really taken off in Britain. One of David Cameron’s grand projets was to devolve more powers locally than ever before, but sadly it was not a success in government. Out of the eleven cities asked in 2012 if they wanted elected mayors, only two said yes — thanks to a mixture of indifference from the government and a natural British scepticism of power. The jury is still out on how successful elected mayors are in Britain — compare the rebirth of Bristol to the divisive regime of Tower Hamlets. But with ever-decreasing turnouts and the rapid rise of Ukip, our mainstream parties, politicians and institutions are no longer catering to the needs of voters. Powerful mayors may well be the solution Britain is waiting for.