Stuart Drummond set out to be the missing link in the mayoral chain – he donned a monkey suit to win the vote as Hartlepool’s first elected mayor.
That might have been a bit of monkeying around, but 10 years on he’s still in office – and has very definitely had the last laugh.
“Clearly someone thinks I am doing something right,” he concedes.
The football mascot-turned-elected mayor, who admitted he only stood as a joke, rocked the established political parties when he stood in his home town as H’Angus the monkey and won in 2002.
In the 10 years since, mayor Drummond says the North East town has undergone regeneration on a major scale, attracted investment, saved jobs, and attracted a million visitors to see the Tall Ships during their stay in the harbour – bringing £27m to the economy.
“Tall ships coming to Hartlepool? That would have been as a joke when I started,” he confides. “This office made it happen.”
Would it work here in Blackpool? The jury’s out, although The Gazette’s online voters were 63 per cent in favour of the new system. The timing’s a bit off, too. Campaigners who believe Blackpool should be given at least a fighting chance to vote on elected mayors have been backed by the resort’s political leaders – but elsewhere, including in Hartlepool, the role is under review.
Blackpool’s own Boris Johnson has a certain ring to it – even if he’s being given a run (yet again) for London’s money by red Ken Livingstone.
It comes after Salford voted in favour of a directly elected mayor last week, and the Government decided 11 cities across the country, including Liverpool and Manchester, should hold referendums in May.
Coun Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council, admits he would “never say never” as Blackpool strives to remain “near the cutting edge of local democracy.”
But this is an age of cuts to public sector workers. Is there room for yet another elected representative? Would an elected mayor prove an effective fighter of Blackpool’s corner?
A straw poll on the streets of Blackpool reveals a 60-40 split in favour – and it’s across the age range.
“Go for it,” says Alan James, 25, a plumber of Highfield Road, of South Shore. “We could do with a Boris here.”
Mavis Johnson, 71, retired shop worker, of Central Drive, disagrees: “I just don’t see the point. We have a mayor. I prefer the mayor to represent the Queen rather than other interests.”
David Palmer, a Bispham resident, adds: “It always seems political to me so it would be nice to have a mayor in place who was independent.”
As part of the Government drive towards “localism” communities minister Greg Clark believes elected mayors would give “visible leadership” and increase prosperity.
Former Liberal Democrat Anchorsholme councillor Jon Bamborough, a champion of an elected local mayoralty, says: “There are local people who have got successful businesses in Blackpool who think the time has come.”
Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden is “dubious” of the benefits, suspicious of the risk of “cliques,” and says the current ceremonial mayoralty works well with senior councillors accorded the privilege of being “king for a year” in rotation. “It’s something quite special,” he adds. “People in Blackpool enjoy seeing the mayor.”
At the heart of the honour is a tacit understanding that whoever holds the mayoralty puts politics aside as first citizen, in effect, Her Majesty’s representative in resort.
But Hartlepool’s mayor Drummond prefers the freedom to come out fighting for post offices to stay open, attract new investment, retain jobs and campaign on causes close to his heart. “That’s the beauty of it all,” he admits. And he’s come a long way since donning a monkey suit in jest for the role.
“The guy, or woman, who wears the chain and robes is a civic role, they don’t have responsibility or power over services. I can affect decisions on day-to-day life, and the public gets a say in who it’s going to be. It gives them direct accountability. An elected mayor is a bridge between council and public, and stops the council being a big, faceless identity. People know where to come when they have an issue. It’s the most democratic system we have, and the only political position where a member of the public has a say on who holds the purse strings.
“This is my third term of office, and, unlike Ken and Boris, I don’t have a gimmick to hide behind. I had a 10,500 majority the second time out, more than many MPs to be honest, took a hit last time, but when you’re making thousands of decisions a year, you’re bound to upset some. Would it work for Blackpool? It’s better than a bunch of faceless councillors making decisions behind closed doors. And that’s what used to happen here before I got stuck in.”