With term limits once again being advocated, MayorWatch editor Martin Hoscik puts the case against disenfranchising Londoners by restricting their choice of Mayoral candidates.
When the House of Lords debated the 2007 Greater London Authority Act a coalition of Tory and LibDem Peers advocated imposing a term limit on the office of Mayor of London.
Wooly thinking on their part meant they failed to make clear that the restriction wouldn’t apply to the 2008 election, this allowed Ken Livingstone to claim opposition parties were seeking to legislate him out of office fearful that they couldn’t unseat him at the ballot box.
As we know, future history didn’t quite play out that way – the amendment was never passed and a chap called Boris managed to defeat Livingstone with a potent mix of ‘time for a change’ rhetoric and a promise to ‘clean up City Hall’ which included an end to cronyism and a commitment not to serve more than two terms.
Fast forward two years and Livingstone again finds himself up against a candidate happy to talk up charges of cronyism against his administration and proposing a limit on the number of terms any Mayor can serve.
This time the election is Labour’s contest to pick a 2012 Mayoral candidate and the rival is former-MP Oona King.
Addressing journalists on Wednesday, King spoke of her support for term limits. It’s probably fair to say she wasn’t expecting my vehement denouncement of the proposal but it’s an undemocratic restriction on the rights of Londoners to choose who they want to run their city, and one which has to be vigorously challenged whenever it’s put forward however well meaning the advocate.
When you consider the claims and counter-claims surrounding the final years of his administration, and whether you accept them as valid or not, it was vital that in 2008 Londoners got the chance to pass judgement on their then two-term Mayor.
Firstly it meant Livingstone personally had to face judgement on his term of office and secondly it prevented his supporters from claiming he’d have walked the contest if only he’d been allowed to run. Unless we want to further entrench the cult of celebrity into British politics this second point is pretty important.
A term limit preventing a potential third Livingstone election victory would have left another Labour contender to take rap for any perceived wrongdoing on the part of the departing Mayor.
Of course any Mayor may opt not to stand for a further term but, unless they’ve already announced a self-imposed limit as Boris did, they risk looking as if they’re running away from the electorate.
Given how so many of the advocates of term limits seem to have Livingstone in mind it’s important to have reflected on what a term limit would have meant in his specific case but there are wider issues which also need considering, some of them requiring major changes of legislation.
As the law currently stands, the London Assembly is elected at the same time as the Mayor – I’ve previously suggested changing this to remove Assembly Members from the Mayor’s shadow – and this has important implications for the feasibility of term limits.
Mayors (and AMs) are elected for four years, if the Mayor resigns, dies or is removed from office more than 6 months before the end of his term of office a new election has to be held.
However, the Mayor elected at that election only gets to serve until the date of the next ordinary election, for example: Boris leaves office later this year and Oona is elected in a Mayoral by-election, she has to face voters again in May 2012 just as Boris would have.
Let’s imagine that a two term limit was currently in place, that would mean Oona could only serve one full term (2012-16) before being forced from office by an arbitrary cut-off date.
Given the length of time needed to change City Hall’s course she’d potentially be facing voters without having been able to influence any of the major policies coming out of City Hall.
Now, the current legal requirement for the Mayor and Assembly to be elected on the same day means you can’t even limit a Mayor’s term by setting a maximum number of years. In our hypothetical scenario above, an 8 year limit would see Mayor Oona having to stand down half way through the 2016-20 term.
A limit of any other number of years – let’s say 10 – only works if the Mayor is originally elected at a mid-term by-election.
Of course you can allow for this and discount any time in office deriving from a by-election but this then allows different Mayors to serve more years then others are permitted to, invalidating the whole principle of a term limit.
In fact, the only way to have a term limit which applied equally to all Mayors would be to separate the Mayoral and Assembly elections in line with my previous suggestions and then restart the clock every time a new Mayor was elected.
But of course that’s not what anyone ever suggests, indeed advocates for term limits seldom (if ever) address the wider complex issues I’ve discussed above and none bother to address the issue of Assembly elections.
Even if a tidy way forward could be found, I’ve still yet to hear a valid reason why Londoners should be denied the right to re-elect someone they think has done a good job. That restriction doesn’t apply to Prime Ministers or the various First Ministers so why should London’s electorate be uniquely disenfranchised?
Of course, political parties are free to impose whatever limits they desire on the number of times any one person can be selected as their Mayoral candidate. That at least allows democracy the chance thrive with former party Mayors having the option to seek re-election as an independent.
The election of Boris in 2008 proved that London’s voters were quite capable of making up their own minds about who should govern and who should be sent packing.
It’s clear there are issues of scrutiny and accountability within City Hall to be addressed, over the past 10 years I’ve written at length about the deficits in these areas, but London’s elections aren’t broken and they don’t need fixing.