Should Croydon have a directly elected mayor?


By - Wednesday 23rd March, 2016

Max Shirley looks at Croydon’s current electoral model and suggests it might be time Croydon had a directly elected mayor


Every day we move closer to the next London Mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections, which are being held on 5th May. Current polls suggest that Labour candidate Sadiq Khan is in the lead, and has been since the summer. Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith has been sitting in a healthy second place but is unlikely to take over any time soon.

London, our capital city, holds mayoral elections, allowing the residents of all its boroughs to vote for the candidate they want to see take office. Croydon does not give its residents this choice. This situation arises because of two different ways in which these authorities are commonly run.

First, we have the ‘leader and cabinet’ model in which eligible residents vote for a local councillor, the resulting council being then made up of the elected members from each ward. The council then vote for a leader (inevitably a councillor from the majority party), and the leader then appoints the cabinet – members who are given responsibility for specific areas of council business. As well as this, there are permanent council employees who make up the non-partisan ‘council leadership team’.

It’s easier, perhaps, to imagine the council leader as a local prime minister

It’s easier, perhaps, to imagine the council leader as a local prime minister, with her/his appointed cabinet whose members direct the work of the civil service (in this case the council leadership team). At present, Labour’s Tony Newman leads the council whilst Nathan Elvery is chief executive of the council leadership team.

On top of all this there is usually a mayor, although this is largely a ceremonial role, unlike that of a directly elected mayor. The current mayor of Croydon is councillor Patricia Hay-Justice who was elected by fellow councillors in 2015, and is currently serving her one-year term of office.

The alternative model is known as ‘elected mayor and cabinet’, in which a mayor, elected by the public, takes over the role of council leader. This gives them considerable power over policy and budget. It is this system which is responsible for us having a directly elected mayor of London, currently Boris Johnson. It is usual, however, for the role of ceremonial mayor to continue under this model: in London this means there is still a Lord Mayor of London, an appointment going back to Dick Whittington and beyond. Perhaps the most prominent reminder that we have a Lord Mayor is the Lord Mayor’s Show, which takes the form of a large and spectacular ceremonial parade through the city. You might well have been to this, or watched it on television.

Every law, every change of budget and every ‘stop’ sign would be voted on

Croydon is currently run according to the leader and cabinet system, where the majority party leads the council and the electorate has no say in who is appointed leader.

Throughout the UK we follow a type of democracy known as representative democracy. This means that one member of society is elected to represent the opinions of the entire community within their constituency. Direct democracy would demand that each citizen has the right to vote on everything. And I mean everything: every law, every change of budget and every ‘stop’ sign would be voted on.

So at a glance, direct democracy has many flaws: the majority vote would always prevail and the views of minority groups would be routinely ignored, something unacceptable in a place such as Croydon with our rich, multi-cultural society. Therefore, it appears that direct democracy is not right for us.

Would it be fairer if we all voted for the mayor of Croydon?

In February of this year Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP for Croydon Central, called for Croydon to have its own mayoral elections. He said: “I think we have long had a problem in Croydon because the political groups are so geographically concentrated”. All northern wards of Croydon are Labour, whilst those in the south (except New Addington and Fieldway) are Conservative.

Council leader, Labour’s Tony Newman, agreed that the current model could lead the council into possible favouritism of particular areas, but did not believe this was happening. He said: “my personal view is that I am not sure of the benefits if you put too much power in one person… We already have a directly elected mayor for London and a ceremonial mayor for Croydon. I like the mayors but you can have too many”.

I think that we would live in a fairer Croydon if we voted for our own mayor

Personally, I agree with Mr Barwell who has stated that “if you had a directly elected leader, that person couldn’t afford to neglect any one bit of the borough”. I think that we would live in a fairer Croydon if we had the ability to vote for our own mayor.

This concern is reiterated by the leader of the council shadow cabinet, Conservative Tim Pollard, who said “[the ability to vote for our own mayor is] certainly something we should look at”.

The elected leader would have received votes from all over Croydon. It would therefore be their duty to help the whole of Croydon’s society. It is unlikely that one ward would wholly vote for one candidate, and so favouritism should not be a problem.

Croydon is already counted as a representative democracy due to our current system. I suggest that it would be fairer if we adopted London’s mayoral system.

Max Shirley

Max Shirley

Max recently finished Sixth Form at a local independent school and will be starting an English Literature degree in the new academic year. Max is a copy-editor at a Croydon-based start-up. Twitter: @max_shirley_

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  • Sean Creighton

    There is a strong case against elected mayors and putting too much power into the hands of one person. In February 2008 I posted on my old website (closed earlier this month) an article by my friend Tony Belton, then Leader of the Labour Group on Wandsworth Council arguing the case against elected mayors. That case is still valid. I have now posted in onto my discussion website at http://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/the-case-against-elected-mayors.html

  • Peter Staveley

    For those that did not click on the link The Lord Mayor of London is the City of London’s mayor and leader of the City of London Corporation, which is, effectively, just another local authority in the Greater London Region, albeit a very important one. He is nothing to do with the Greater London Authority.

    It is a shame that you said that Direct democracy is not quite right for Croydon. Surely if the views of minority groups were valid then they would be supported by the majority of people? I would be interested to hear what views of minority groups would be overridden by the majority?

    One administrative arrangement that you did not mention is the Committee system. This is where a Council elects a leader to represent the authority, but they have no executive power. Power is exercised by a number of committees, made up of Councillors in proportion to their parties’ representation on the Council. If a committee is unable to make a decision, or a minority group wish to challenge it, the decision may be referred to a meeting of the full Council for a final decision.

    Several local authorities have returned to that system. What do you think of it?

    • Max Shirley

      There’s a multitude of reasons I don’t think a direct democracy would work:

      1) There are so many different groups/demographics; everyone will want something different, which makes it difficult and time consuming to come to a decision.

      2) Sadly, there are many people out there who purely don’t care for others (especially minority groups). They will out-right ignore them, and their needs.

      3) Sometimes the best ideas put in place by the government are not liked by the public. For instance, Timothy Geithner (previous US Treasury) was hated for his policy to stop recession, but it worked. We aren’t all economically-minded; in some cases it’s best to leave it to trained-professionals.

      I know the US Senate uses some form of the committee system. I don’t know too much about it.
      You say a council elects a leader, what if their choice isn’t liked by the public?

      In dire situations decisions need to be made quickly, there isn’t always time to listen to everyone’s opinion.

      • Peter Staveley

        Perhaps I have misinterpreted what you think is Direct Democracy and what I think is Direct Democracy. I would only expect important changes in policy to go out to a local referendum. For example, the proposed changes to the Local Plan, which involve permitting development on what is currently green space/MOL/Green Belt, I would want to be approved by the full electorate.

        Similarly the building of the incinerator at Beddington would have been an ideal subject for a local referendum (in that case involving more than one borough).

        I would also want the option for the relevant electorate to be able to petition for a referendum. There would need to be a minimum number of the voters in Croydon, say, 10% in order to trigger a local referendum. But if those 10% wanted the council to do something (or not do something) then there would be a referendum and the result will be binding on the Council. By the way that referendum decision could have an affect on the level of Council Tax and that would be part of the Referendum.

        So, for example, if the refurbishment of Fairfield Halls was done without closure or the enabling development and that would put, say, an extra £50 per year on the Council Tax then if the result of the referendum was not to close the Fairfield Halls the Council Tax would then be £50 higher than previously budgeted.

        Obviously the smaller issues would still be decided by the elected councillors, albeit that they could be overturned by a binding referendum (as described above) if enough people were against that decision.

        I notice that you have not commented about the Committee system.

        • Max Shirley

          A direct democracy is when citizens vote on everything, I mean everything.
          However, it does make more sense if only important changes/policies were voted on.

          I think that if the Council gives people the opportunity to establish local referendums it would be abused. Very strict rules would have to be put in place to combat this.

          However, you do bring up a good point, the public needs to be more evolved with local politics.
          Councillors have a tendency to avoid questions being asked, take my Twitter conversations with Cllr Stuart Collins as an example.

          I did briefly mention the committee system. Due to my lack of knowledge I don’t think I can give an accurate opinion – I’ll get back to you at a later date.