The (Non-)Elected Mayor of Medway

Once a month we hand over to Alan Collins from Medway Elects who digs into the Medway electoral data to try to tell us what it all means. This month we sent him the fun task of looking at the murky world of Medway’s Mayoral system…

A cursory glance at the Medway Conservative Group website this past weekend would have you believe that this blog’s favourite (or is it the other way around?) councillor Steve Iles is the “elected mayor” of Medway.

Except, he’s not. And not just because he handed over the reigns (chains?) to his former deputy Habib Tejan at last month’s annual council meeting.

The fact is that neither Cllr Iles nor Cllr Tejan are the elected mayor of Medway for the very simple reason that Medway does not have an elected mayor, or at least not an elected mayor as provided for in section 9H of the Local Government Act 2000, which states that an “elected mayor” is:

“an individual elected as mayor of the authority by the local government electors for the authority’s area in accordance with the provisions made by or under this Part.”

An elected mayor is the executive leader of the local authority, elected by the people under the supplementary voteelectoral system. In (very) simplified form, in Medway it would be the equivalent position to that currently occupied by Cllr Alan Jarrett, but elected by a larger support base than being given the position on the nod by councillors who were elected by just 34% of the 31% of voters who turned out. Instead of a leader chosen from among the councillors and a cabinet, it would be a mayor who could not simultaneously be a councillor and a cabinet. Similar functions as a leader, but with more power balanced by direct democratic accountability for their policies and decisions.

According to that great font of knowledge Wikipedia, 15 local authorities in England and Wales currently have an elected mayor, while a further 9 mayors represent a multi-authority region (such as Greater London). Three local authorities (Hartlepool, Stoke-on-Trent and Torbay) used to have an elected mayor, but decided it wasn’t for them and reverted to a leader and cabinet system after local referenda. Of those 24 mayors, none represent Medway, which perhaps makes the discussion in this article so far purely academic. So why bring it up?

Firstly, if Medway wanted an elected mayor, under the Local Government Act 2000, we would be entitled to have one. All it would take would be 5% of local government electors (currently 9,891) to petition the council for a referendum to be held to change from leader and cabinet to an elected mayor, and then for 50% plus one of the votes cast in that election to be in favour of introducing an elected mayor. Simple, no?

Secondly, and more importantly, because some people (including the ruling Conservative Group, who should really know better) continue to refer to the Mayor of Medway as the “elected mayor” when he is not. As should be clear by now, there is a clear contrast between a powerful executive mayor elected under a direct popular mandate and our own. In fact, the Mayor of Medway is not so much elected as chosen by a small group of predominantly white men (though commendably noting that their choice for mayor this year, Cllr Tejan, is the first mayor of African origin) and rubber stamped at the annual council meeting with barely a hint of a contest.

So if Medway does not have an elected mayor with executive functions, just what does our mayor do once they’ve donned the chains of office? Officially they are the first citizen of the borough, a ceremonial figurehead to be wheeled out on special occasions and with no more power than chairing six council meetings a year. Officially they are there to represent every citizen of the borough, independent of party politics, which presumably is why they are only drawn from a group of 33 people who received just 34% of votes across the borough.

That may seem like something of a flippant remark, but let us consider just how the mayor is elected. The procedure is set out in Chapter 4 of the Council’s Constitution, which states:


20.1 The Mayor shall be elected by the Council from among the Councillors at the annual meeting and, unless a casual vacancy occurs, the Mayor shall continue in office until a successor is elected.

20.2 The Deputy Mayor shall also be elected by the Council from among the Councillors at the annual meeting.

20.3 Except in the year of Medway Council elections, the Council at its ordinary meeting before the annual meeting shall nominate candidates to be recommended for election as Mayor and Deputy Mayor at the annual meeting.

Officially, the mayor is simply chosen from among the members of the council, irrespective of party. However, in practice this has meant that since 2008, every mayor of Medway has been from the ruling Conservative Group, whose nomination for the post is decided upon behind closed doors.

Of course, other political groups are entitled to nominate their own members, too. For example, in 2011, the Labour Group nominated Nick Bowler. However, given the Conservatives’ sizeable majority, such a nomination was never likely to be successful. The Labour Group have also been known to simply refuse to take part in the proceedings in protest.

On the face of it, the latter course of action may seem to be petty, but it is worth noting for context that not every mayor of Medway has been from the Conservative Group – even since they have held a majority in the chamber. In 2007, for example, the Mayor of Medway was Val Goulden, a Labour councillor, and in 2005 it was Ken Webber, a Liberal Democrat. How was this possible? Were the Conservatives feeling generous? Well, no.

Before 2009, rather than a simple nominate and vote from any of the councillors method, a points-based system was in effect for the mayoralty. This was quite a simple system, which I tried to explain on Twitter last month, but unfortunately 280 characters is not quite enough to do it justice. Fortunately, as my previous articles have shown, I am not limited by space here.

In short, under the points-based system, each political group, provided it had at least two members and had been in existence for at least 15 months, was given one point for each member of that group, and the group with the highest number of points was given the mayoralty.

A-ha! I hear you cry. In that case, the largest group would choose the mayor ever year? Well, they had thought about that. The true genius of the system was that the points rolled over from one year to the next, so that a group with, say, 14 members would have 14 points in the first year and 28 points in the second year. In addition, the group which held the mayoralty the previous year would have 55 points (one per member of the council) deducted.

Taking a random example, this is how the calculation was performed in 2005:

With 30 seats, the Conservatives had 30 points added to their previous total of 39, carried over from 2004/2005. Labour had 17 points added to their previous total of -16, the Liberal Democrats had 6 added to their total of 24 and the independents had 2 added to their total of 6. The Liberal Democrats, therefore, had the highest number of points and were awarded the mayoralty for the 2005/06 municipal year.

This system meant that the mayoralty was truly representative of the people of the borough, as rather than one party (representing a minority of voters) holding the mayoralty, all parties were given an opportunity (proportionate to their size). It was still not an “elected mayor”, but it ensured the status of the mayoralty was as a ceremonial mayoralty should be: above the adversarial nature of party politics and reflective of the public at large.

But, just like all nice things, along came the Tories to spoil the fun.

In 2009, halfway into their second term as the majority party, the Conservatives swung in with a mayoral “power grab” and changed the rules to the ones we have today. They were criticised. A lot. By just about anyone who was not a Conservative – and even by some of their own (like myself, at the time a Tory member). But they ploughed ahead anyway, and every mayor since then has been from the Conservative Group.

Had the points-based system continued, we would have seen Conservative mayors in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2019, Labour mayors in 2010, 2015 and 2018, and a Liberal Democrat mayor in 2013. The Conservatives, who held on average 64% of the seats over that period would have held the mayoralty 64% of the time. Similarly, Labour, holding on average 27% of the seats would have held the mayoralty 27% of the time. The Liberal Democrats held 5% of the seats on average (having gone from 8 in 2009, to 3 in 2011, and total wipeout in 2015) and would have held the mayoralty 9% of the time. The remaining 4% of seats, belonging to UKIP andindependents, would not have collected sufficient points to take the mayoralty.

Whilst not necessarily being a perfect system, the what if calculation for the never years above demonstrates that the points-based system ensured the mayoralty reflected the people of Medway (or, at least, the way they have voted under our far-from-perfect first past the post electoral system) far better than the more recent one-party-takes-all approach.

All may not be lost, however, as the Labour and Co-operative Group (as it now is) is seeking to change the Council’s constitution to revert to the old points-based system (with one key difference, being that a political group would need at least four members to be considered, rather than two as per the previous system). They presented the proposal as an amendment to the nomination of Cllr Tejan as mayor at last month’s annual council meeting, and as a constitutional matter the decision was rolled over to the next council meeting in July. They are hoping that the Conservatives will acquiesce, and return to a more collegiate mayoralty, reflective of the 61% of voters whose party of choice would be included in the calculations under Labour’s proposed rules.

However, given they are up against many of the same Conservative councillors who so cynically took the mayoralty for their own back in 2009, I would not hold your breath.

Alan Collins is the creator of Medway Elects, which is committed to building a complete electoral history for Medway.

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