Once upon a time we had general elections and we had local elections and people knew more or less how they worked and who was responsible for which part of our lives. Either way, one could be absolutely certain that the government in whatever form took on far too many responsibilities, which it could not carry out but which involved appointing lots of people in unnecessary jobs, raising taxes, regulating whatever they could and making it clear that we could not make proper decisions for ourselves. But, at least, the system was more or less comprehensible.
How times have changed. Governments, in whatever form, still claim too many responsibilities and we are trusted ever less with the making of decisions but there are several more layers around and many more elections, run on very different lines. In fact, the situation resembles that in certain Balkan countries where there seem to be some kind of elections every few months and nobody quite knows who is being elected to what and according to which method.
London is particularly difficult because we now have a Mayor, who has very few powers though a great deal of money at his disposal and, therefore, a great deal of patronage. There is also an Assembly that has no powers at all, not even to control the Mayor in any real sense; it is, in fact, a very expensive talking shop whose procedures are less well known than those of the European Parliament (another layer that needs to be elected in a completely different way from any other layer).
The GLA elections, which are coming in about three weeks see the largest number of spoilt ballot papers even though the turn-out is never more than about 35 per cent, because of the sheer incomprehensibility of the process. Thus, the Mayor is elected by a single transferable vote with every voter getting two votes to share out between the various candidates. That's quite difficult enough for an electorate that is used to first past the post but there is the extra complication of the Assembly that is voted in partly by FPTP and partly by a top-up system. So, one votes (if one bothers, which one may not as it is such a pointless organization) for an individual in the particular constituency (not to be confused with the boroughs) and also for a party.
After all that and with all the hype that is going on around the KenandBoris show, one must repeat that the Mayor of London has very few powers and those that he does have come from legislation that was passed by Parliament in 1998 and amended in 2007. In other words, those powers are strictly defined and limited by Parliament and cannot be changed neither by the Mayor nor by the Assembly nor by the people of London, should they be asked. (They were asked in the first place whether they wanted a Mayor and an Assembly and the usual thing happened: more than 60 per cent did not bother to turn out and those who did voted overwhelmingly in favour.)
This needs to be remembered and, despite the various difficulties I enumerated above, it is not hard to do so. Why, then, do we get hacks producing articles such as the one in today's Torygraph by the hackette Sue Cameron, entitled The Cities Are Taking Over?
According to this rather ignorant analysis, Labour MPs are set to abandon their seats in droves because they will want to be elected to be Mayors or new Police Commissioners. The Labour High Command is unhappy because that would mean unwelcome by-elections that they might lose.
Why do these people allegedly want to abandon their cosy little nests in Westminster? Because, if you please, power is about to seep to those elected Mayors and Police Commissioners and we shall end up with a quasi-American situation (or the French situation) where local authorities, elected mayors and police commissioners and other suchlike individuals will have far more power than Whitehall.
Really? Let's think about it a little. The powers of all these elected officials, as I said above but it is worth repeating, are very strictly defined and limited by Westminster with the legislation written by Whitehall. Elected mayors or police commissioners will not be in charge of the budget as a good deal of the money will still be decided on by the government and will not be raised locally. Most of the little that will be in their remit, as we can see in London, they have no real control over as there are numerous statutory obligations laid on them by Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels, in whatever order and which they have to fulfil. In what way is power seeping away to the cities? If any of the referendums produce directly elected mayor, the only thing that will achieve is another layer of highly expensive and largely impotent government plus some more elections.
Not that the candidates know the facts any better. I have already written about the independent candidate, Siobhan Benita, whose policies were concerned entirely with matters that were outside the Mayor's remit. Out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the eurosceptic cause I have kept quiet about the UKIP manifesto, which also consists of policies that had nothing to do with the Mayor's remit. But this has now been noted by the Metro newspaper, which has stated quite frankly that UKIP cannot deliver on any of its policies because none of them are matters over which the Mayor has any say. The candidate has agreed with that judgement. It might be a good idea for hacks on supposedly grander newspapers to learn a few of those facts. Surely, it cannot be that hard.