England’s 50 Presidents: Your Vote on May 2nd

By: Colin Talbot

On May 2nd voters in England will elect 50 ‘presidents’. They are not actually called presidents, but they have many of the features of a presidential form of government.

So who are these ‘presidents’ and how did the UK, or more specifically England – with a long-standing tradition of parliamentary style-democracy at all levels of government – end up here?

Our presidential-style elections are for 10 executive metro-mayors, 1 local authority executive mayor, and 39 police and crime commissioners. The ten metro-mayors are, between them, responsible for £25 billion of public expenditure (according to the Institute for Government think tank).

And the fate of some of them – Sadiq Khan in London; Andy Street in the West Midlands; Andy Burnham in Manchester; and Ben Houchen on Teeside – will feature prominently in the post-election analysis and discussions.

Presidents Versus Parliaments

One of the longest running and controversial constitutional and political issues in discussions about the design of democracies has been the debate over presidential versus parliamentary systems.

Presidential and parliamentary models are, of course, ideal-type models. Few actual systems conform exactly to any such abstract model. But the broad key features of the two types are well understood and derived largely from two real examples: the United States and the United Kingdom. These two are often used as examples because the ‘Westminster’ parliamentary model has been adopted and adapted by many former British colonies around the globe. And the US presidential system has also been widely adopted and adapted across the Americas, north and south (except Canada). Some countries like Sri Lanka even use a combination. 

In a presidential democracy the ‘chief political officer’ (CPO), almost always called the President, is directly elected – either by popular vote or in some cases (the USA) an electoral college (which has no other function than to elect the CPO). In a parliamentary system the CPO, usually called a Prime Minister, but also Chancellor, Taoiseach, etc., is elected or selected from amongst the representatives elected to the legislature or parliament.

The second key difference is the relationship between the CPO and the legislature. In a parliamentary system the CPO is not only drawn from the legislature but is dependent on it for her or his authority. They must, in the UK case, be able to “command a majority in the House of Commons”. Presidents have no such requirement – their direct election is their mandate.

The third key difference concerns the so-called ‘separation of powers’ as it applies to the executive and legislative parts of a government. In a presidential system the CPO and the legislature can be controlled by different political groups and consequently clash. They each have their own mandates and powers, which can in some circumstances lead to deadlocks over legislation or budgets.

In a parliamentary system the executive and legislative ‘branches’ are usually described as being partially fused together, as the executive depends on the legislature for its mandate. More symbiotic than separated? I would qualify this in the UK case – the inheritance of many powers of the monarch by prime ministers means their autonomy from Parliament is often much greater than if they just relied on ‘commanding a majority’.

The fourth difference concerns the way in which the executive ‘branch’ is structured and operates. In a parliamentary system the CPO usually has a cabinet also drawn from fellow parliamentarians in which she or he is, in the UK version, merely the ‘first among equals’. The cabinet is supposed to be ‘collegial’ and operate ‘collective responsibility’. Whether this always holds true given the monarchical powers point above is questionable.

In a presidential system the ‘cabinet’ is usually made up of people who are not in the legislature at all and are solely beholden to the President and exercise authority solely on her or his account.

National to Local

These debates have mostly been confined to discussions about national systems, ignoring the fact that sub-national tiers of government usually mirror national systems. Presidential national polities tend to have presidential style regional or local governments, and the same is true of parliamentary systems.

In the USA for example, state and local governments tend to follow the national pattern – with Governors and Mayors instead of Presidents, but essentially similar political structures.

In the UK, until very recently, modern local government was essentially parliamentary in nature, indeed in some ways it was more parliamentary than Parliament itself. The old local government system of committees drawn from all parties running service departments, rather than ‘ministers’, was a more ‘fused’ system than Westminster and Whitehall.

The new devolved governments of Wales and Scotland have mostly mirrored the broad outlines of parliamentary government in London. (Northern Ireland is a special case.) But at local government level we are seeing a change, in England, to a much more presidential form of Government.

 50 ‘Presidents’ – Pros and Cons?

There are many arguments – constitutional, political and practical – for and against both parliamentary and presidential systems of government. Some of the negative arguments against the presidential systems are perhaps reinforced by the way in which executive mayors and PCCs have been implemented in England.

The first and most important idea underpinning the whole movement towards Mayors, Commissioners and the like is what Archie Brown memorably calls ‘the myth of the strong leader’

Brown’s main argument is that such concentration of power in a democracy is antithetical to democratic norms of a dispersal of power and checks and balances. He points out that even in autocratic systems, collective leaderships tend to fare better than single person dictatorships. There is a worry that the power invested in Metro-Mayors means we are creating more of the latter. 

Brown also argues that the idea that a single leader can have the ability, or time, to properly consider a wide range of policy issues is obviously false and impractical. In reality, what tends to happen in such leader-centered systems is that she/he has to delegate to unelected deputies who speak on her/his behalf, with all sorts of problematic consequences.

There is also a tendency towards hubristic behavior in any system that is built on the assumption that one person has all the answers. In their book ‘The Blunders of Our Governments’ Anthony King and Ivor Crewe analyze 12 major policy disasters. Going through their conclusions there are three near universal factors that apply to all the cases: 

  • a lack of ‘deliberation’ in decision-making, in other words decisions usually made in haste by a single person or small group (all 12 cases).
    • the absence of any serious Ministerial accountability for their decisions (also 12 cases), meaning that few Ministers ever stay around long enough to be held accountable for decisions;
    • and the weakness of Parliament in pre-scrutiny of policies (11 cases) – although legislation is now subject to pre-scrutiny, policies as such are not subjected to thorough examination usually until well after they have been implemented (and disaster has struck).

    Of these three reasons, the first and third especially apply to ‘presidential’ systems like Metro-Mayors or Police and Crime Commissioners. In all these ‘presidential’ innovations in English local government, the ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’ in national-level presidential systems is largely absent. As a result, decisions are made by individuals or very small, closed, groups dependent on one individual with little deliberation.

    The predominant view amongst political scientists studying national forms of government has long been that parliamentary forms of government are inherently more stable and produce better results than presidential ones. With the major exception of the USA, presidential forms have a much greater tendency to degenerate into autocracies or dictatorships.

    There is certainly some evidence that some of our new local  ‘presidents’ have had a tendency to secrecy and autocratic decision making.

    A final point. There has been virtually no discussion of the constitutional and practical problems of joining-up a presidential system of local government with a parliamentary system of central government. Clashes between local mayors and central government became evident during the Covid pandemic and recently ideas have been floated about having a ‘Council of Mayors’ or of incorporating them in some way into a reformed second chamber of parliament itself.

    Colin Talbot.

    A small part of this article contains an edited extract from a previous article on Metro Mayors for Policy@Manchester. That article can be read in full at: https://blog.policy.manchester.ac.uk/featured/2015/02/a-mayor-for-all-seasons/ 

    Colin is Emeritus Professor of Government, University of Manchester. He also has relationships with the Cambridge Judge Business School and the Federal Trust. Colin has worked extensively with all levels of British government and public services, including being an advisor to two House of Commons Select Committees and appearing as an expert witness over two dozen times in both Houses of Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh Assembly. He has also advised more than a dozen other governments, from the USA to Japan.

    The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.