Aside from his passing resemblance to Winston Churchill (or maybe it’s Alfred Hitchcock), Joe Anderson doesn’t look like an historic figure. Yet he is—if not quite on a Churchillian scale. As Liverpool’s first-ever directly elected mayor, he’s the “most powerful elected official outside London,” claims Greg Clark, Britain’s minister for cities. It’s a label Anderson is proud to wear. “When people want to know who speaks for Liverpool, they’ll know it’s me,” he says. “They can come directly to me and see the whites of my eyes—see the ambition—and know we have the power to get things done.” Clark insists Anderson’s May 3 election is a critical moment in “turning around the relationship between central government and local government.”
In the U.S., mayors are rarely lauded in such lofty terms. Every big city and most Podunk towns have one. But in the U.K., where city leaders are usually picked by locally elected councils, directly elected mayors are a rarity. Even London Mayor Boris Johnson, a man known outside Britain mostly for his unruly mop of blond hair, occupies an office that didn’t exist until 2000.
Prime Minister David Cameron is out to change that. As part of an effort to drive economic growth by placing more power—some say blame—in local hands, Cameron has pledged to put “a Boris” in every British city. So far, though, voters would prefer to do without. Ten English cities put the question of whether to elect a mayor to popular vote on May 3. Only one, Bristol, opted to give it a go. (Liverpool City Council decided to bypass the public referendum and called a mayoral election for the same day, which is how Anderson got his new job. His previous post? Leader of Liverpool City Council.)
Most voters concluded that mayoral elections weren’t worth the hassle, especially in cities where people are doing just fine under the current system. In Manchester, which lies just inland from Liverpool in northwest England, residents opted for the status quo by 48,593 to 42,677. Turnout was a measly 25 percent. “People don’t understand what problem this solves or why the national government has such an obsession with directly elected mayors,” says Sir Richard Leese, who’s in his 16th year as the leader of Manchester’s city council. Leese notes he’s already accountable to the other locally elected councilors, who also award the ceremonial title of Lord Mayor to one of their own each year.
So why is Cameron making such a big push for mayors? In part because Clark convinced him it’s the way of the future. A Tory MP with a Ph.D. in economics from the London School of Economics, Clark wrote a book in 2002 called Total Politics that argued against the growing dominance of central government. Cameron took up the cause. “I could see that the reduction of power at the local level was bad news for the country,” says Clark. “When we changed government, the prime minister called me up and asked me to put the book into practice.”
Although a handful of other cities have elected mayors, Liverpool is now the most prominent lab for Clark’s theory that local control will help make the government more efficient and responsive. That’s given Joe Anderson unexpected status. They’re an odd couple—the boyish Tory insider and the portly Labour Party mayor who left school at 16 to become a merchant seaman. Whitehall has rewarded Liverpool a “city deal” that includes £130 million ($204 million) in government grants and the creation of enterprise zones to drive investment.
Clark says the change puts Liverpool in an enviable position. “Unbelievably, under the existing system, local government existed to do only those things that central government required it to do. Anything else was illegal,” he says. “Now the local government can do whatever it wants, unless it’s specifically prohibited.” Put bluntly, Anderson says, “we’ve got more power than Manchester’s got.”
Manchester’s Leese has a terse response. “In legal terms, I have exactly the same powers as Joe does as mayor of Liverpool,” Leese says. “It’s very nice of Mr. Clark to say we can do what we’ve been doing a very long time.” Anderson will eventually realize he made “a major mistake in denying the people of Liverpool a vote as to whether they wanted a mayor or not,” says Leese, who points out that the new system imports American-style elections but none of the taxation powers U.S. mayors typically have. “The best way to build strong local leadership is to build on what we have,” he says. “If you want a wonderful example of directly elected mayors not being some form of panacea for the ills of urban life, you only have to go to Detroit.”