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The party's over

Scotland flocks to the polls, but elsewhere direct democracy is failing to engage voters

Oh nay. The mayor, Disney style. Scott Smith, CC BY-NC-ND

Whatever the result on September 18, Scotland’s independence referendum will produce what supporters of direct democracy are likely to hail as a victory. Around 97% of the population have registered to vote and turnout will almost certainly be far higher than the 63.8% who voted in Scotland at the 2010 general election.

This is a rare bright spot in Britain’s recent history of direct democracy. Just 60.4% voted in the referendum to establish Scottish devolution in 1997 – well below the 71.3% turnout in that year’s general election. Meanwhile in Wales, participation rates have been even lower: only 50.1% voted in the devolution referendum in 1997 and a mere 35.2% did so in a 2011 referendum on the Welsh Assembly’s tax-raising powers.

Monkey business

If these figures suggest a lack of public enthusiasm, those regarding the major direct democracy innovation of the past 20 years in Britain – elected mayors – are far more damning. As Colin Rallings, Michael Thrasher, and David Cowling conclude, the evidence is that “when given the opportunities to adopt mayors the electors neither participate in large numbers nor endorse the principle”. In the majority of British cities where referendums have been held to decide whether to introduce directly-elected mayors, the vast majority of people have not felt moved to cast their vote. And, of those that have, most have chosen to reject the option.

In those cities which have said yes to elected mayors, citizens have not subsequently flocked to polling stations. Rallings, Thrasher and Cowling note that when mayoral elections have been held alone (i.e. not on the same day as other types of elections), turnout has averaged just 25.5%. Even in London, home of the most high-profile election, the latest Johnson v. Livingstone bout in 2012 only attracted 38.1% of voters. Outside London, it says a lot that probably the best-known elected mayor has been the football mascot H'Angus the Monkey that managed to get elected (and re-elected) mayor of Hartlepool before a further referendum in 2012 abolished the office.

Mayor H'Angus. Yaffa Phillips, CC BY-SA

So, if the public has shown little enthusiasm for directly-elected mayors, who does want them? Academic work on the topic in Britain suggests that local party people are not keen on them either, especially since the presence of an elected mayor will almost certainly reduce their role and influence (for anyone interested in this, Colin Copus’s excellent book Party Politics and Local Government is worth a read). So, the push from leading figures in the major British parties to supposedly make “politics closer to the people” by allowing citizens to elect their mayors has received, at best, lukewarm responses from parties at local level and the wider public.

Party detached

We can see a similar situation in continental European countries where mayoral elections have been introduced. In a recent article published in the journal Government and Opposition, Oscar Mazzoleni and I investigated firstly how local party representatives, officials and grassroots members in two Italian and Swiss cities (Genoa and Lausanne) related to and viewed the directly-elected mayors their parties had backed. We also looked at how those mayors related to and viewed their local party representatives, officials and members.

Overall, we found that the mayors were what Colin Copus calls “party detached”. The story in both Genoa and Lausanne was of local party bosses, councillors and ordinary members feeling side-lined and of mayors feeling that those in the party did not understand the pressures and demands of leading the city. In particular, the mayors used the mandate they had been given by the public vote to justify why they did not need to consult their parties on issues as much as those in the parties would have liked.

As the leader of the mayor’s own party in Genoa told us, the mayor “is a strong presence. She wants to take all decisions”. He lamented the fact that, unlike his predecessors in earlier decades, he found himself with a much smaller party staff to support his work and with a mayor who only called him when necessary. Ordinary grassroots party members in the city also viewed the relationship as being too one-sided, with them dedicating time and effort to campaigning for the mayor’s election, but then not being sufficiently considered and listened to once “their” mayor was in office.

Falling turnout

But what about the citizens? Maybe they have welcomed the chance to elect the mayor themselves rather than having the parties decide it in the council chamber? Not a bit of it. Turnout in Genoa has fallen at every single election since directly elected mayors were introduced: from 78.9% in 1993 to just 55.5% in 2012. And while it has also dropped at general elections in the city over the same period, that decrease has been much less pronounced: by just over 10 points from 85.9% in 1994 to 74.7%% in 2013.

As in Britain, the talk in Italy in the 1990s was of new elected mayors reducing the gap between people and politics and of direct democracy revitalising local democracy. But the evidence is that this has not been the case. Instead, local parties and the public have withdrawn from a zone of mutual engagement, replaced by the horse race of a personalised mayoral election which in most cases is popular with neither. Key democratic structures and linkages – tying together citizens, party members, councillors and local leaders – have been weakened. In the name of a greater democracy promoted from on high by national elites.

So, well done in advance to the Scots for getting out and voting in the referendum this week. But let us not take this to mean that direct democracy is always better democracy.

The Government and Opposition article by Duncan McDonnell and Oscar Mazzoleni, “Directly Elected Mayors and their Parties”, can be downloaded for free until 24 October 2014

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