Margo MacDonald: ‘Expert’ performers are having a mayor

‘Independents do get elected,” Tory leader Ruth Davidson assured the caller from the Capital who proclaimed himself fed up with political parties, and their habit of telling one story before election and a different one afterwards.

Wednesday, 11th April 2012, 1:01 pm

“Take Margo MacDonald, she’s been in Holyrood for years and has a distinctive opinion.” And having avoided the issue raised, she moved to another area of Tory policy. Listeners were no better informed as to what difference having a Tory councillor would make or how Tories approached the near-certain position of councils being coalitions because that’s what proportional voting produces. A fair number of them probably aren’t aware that I’m the only independent in Holyrood because of the difficulty in getting elected compared with a party candidate – and the parties want to keep it that way.

But hardly any of the above was on the menu for the programme. Maybe Ruth Davidson has a strategic goal for the powers in local authorities that dovetails with the powers she would like for the Scottish Parliament, but maybe not. Maybe she was unaware of the irony of having her, with no local authority experience and only a brief time in Holyrood, on rather than a serving councillor who’s been round the block and who speaks from the perspective of being part of the team that delivers the services that can make life, wherever you are, heaven or hell.

To be fair, the programme did much the same as all the others covering the local elections, and unthinkingly re-enforced the secondary consideration given to council elections by voters – for example, by having a fairly weel-kent Holyrood face comment and judge councillors’ performance. It’s not new for journalists to present a local contest against the background of the parties’ standings and possible performances in a parliamentary general election. In each case, local government is denigrated by being treated as an also-ran, so who’s surprised that voters don’t make the same effort to vote as they do in general elections?

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But there’s a newish idea doing the rounds to persuade voters to love and support their council – a clutch of influential people have formed a lobby group for councils and are campaigning for them to be headed by an elected mayor, provost or high heid yin. They are quite sure that such a change in local government will produce leadership that will use all of the tools available to grow the local economy. Ms Davidson, who seems to fancy the idea, unfortunately wasn’t pressed to say how the responsibility of councillors would be affected. How would setting the school’s budget be done? Would the headteacher report to the elected major or vice versa?

The opportunity was there to explain and allow people to judge the benefits. Instead, the presenter/guest repartee soon reverted to each other’s comfort zones. “What would this do to the Scottish Tories’ attempts to claw back support at parliamentary [Westminster] level where David Mundell is the one and only Tory elected from Scotland? Will David Cameron be pleased with the Scottish Tories if you do your own thing and embarrass him with his England backbenchers?”

Who cares? was my response to the kitchen radio. This is supposed to be about local government. It’s changed hugely since the councils were elected five years ago. How about getting some opinion on the pros and cons? And what about this business of mayors? Are they anything more than good speech-makers, natural PR practitioners and HR managers?”

It would be quite wrong to take that thumbnail biog of Boris Johnson and make it the template for the job of mayor. London’s two mayors have been exceptional politicians. Even Tories conceded that Ken Livingstone shook up the Beehive as he had done in County Hall when his socialism was unreconstructed.

But having acknowledged each mayoral candidate’s ability, could I now appeal to both of them to grow up and stop this unedifying circus of brinkmanship, insult and petulance? Stories of the pair facing up to each other and exchanging accusations in old-fashioned four-letter language is no argument in favour of open government. Neither are one-fingered salutes, and here’s where I take real issue with the pair. After accusing each other of tax dodging, they’ve been vying to be the first to publish their tax records. Fair enough, but what if one, or both, are moved to accuse the other of moving cash etc into their wife’s account?

Do the missus’ financial affairs become public property? We already know that too many able people have backed off going into politics. Their relatives becoming public property will do nothing to reverse the trend.

Keep it local.