Peter Davies, former Mayor of Doncaster
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Former Doncaster Mayor
5 May 2012: Former teacher Peter Davies is the second elected mayor of Doncaster in Northern England and now the country’s most divisive. Davies’ victory over the local political establishment surprised many, including himself, but the English Democrats’ sole elected representative insists his often maligned views on a range of social issues are simply at the heart of his appeal as a straight-talking Yorkshireman. Critics on the other hand claim that the town, rated one of the worst local authorities in England, requires a more serious hand at the helm.
Update May 2013: Peter Davies loses re-election bid. Labour's Ros Jones is the new mayor.
Update February 2013: Peter Davies resigned from the English Democrats and now styles himself as 'Independent'.
The new mayor’s CV does not read like that of a conventional British local government leader: there is no lengthy service in the council chamber, no time spent schmoozing the great and the good on quangos or in think tanks. Instead, at first glance, it is rather indicative, save for some recent electoral activity to further the anti-European cause, of what would be expected of a 66-year-old retired religious studies teacher and chairman of the local cricket club, born and bred in the town. Only the existence of Davies’ son, the Conservative MP Philip Davies, initially gives any clue towards his politics.
As mayor, Davies has attracted widespread media interest, unusual for a municipal politician other than the London mayor, on account of his shared interest with his son in battling the twin scourges of “political correctness” and the European Union. Davies Jr is substantially estranged from his party’s leadership on account of his advocating wholesale British withdrawal from the EU and bombarding the Equalities and Human Rights Commission with letters demanding the right for entertainers to black up.
Peter Davies’ party, the English Democrats, were founded in 1999 by a former Conservative Party member who advocated an English Parliament in response to the creation of the new devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales. The party has since refined its goal to the creation of a federal Britain of its constituent nations and withdrawal from the EU in favour of becoming a Swiss-style member of the European Free Trade Association. Its other policies are equally as pedantic and obscure in terms of most voters’ priorities, such as the restoration of traditional English county boundaries and the abolition of English regions.
An eccentric grouping, standing on a fairly obscure policy platform based around constitutional issues, the English Democrats stumbled through most of the decade after their formation polling risible low single figure results in any elections they contested. Their candidate for the 2008 London mayoral election, Fathers4Justice founder Matt O’Connor, withdrew from the race citing media indifference. A series of mergers with sundry anti-European Union grouplets and defections from avowedly racist parties of the far right did little to enthuse the media over their mainstream acceptance levels.
Before Davies’ election, the small party’s best known member and candidate was tabloid journalist Garry Bushell, who espoused in perhaps more vocal terms the party’s anti-EU and hardline stance on immigration (though Davies shares his enthusiasm for the restoration of capital and corporal punishment). Davies is perhaps no stranger to such groupings, having left the Labour Party in 1973 on account of fiery socialist rhetoric he claims he heard at a local miners’ union rally, he then joined the Conservative Party, where he remained for 20 years until its leader British Prime Minister John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty to found the European Union. Davies’ subsequent political activity was for the United Kingdom Independence Party, for whom he unsuccessfully contested a series of European and general elections. Davies’ “surprise” 2009 election however was not down to a sudden rise in support for English nationalism in the Yorkshire town.
Doncaster, a large conurbation in South Yorkshire which was once dependent on a since departed mining industry, has had a turbulent past to contend with and a number of unenviable labels attached to it (‘AIDS capital of England’, for one). During the 1990s, Doncaster council became a byword for local authority corruption, which remains rare in the UK.
Under the ‘Donnygate’ scandal, several councillors from the ruling Labour group were either fined or imprisoned for an array of misconduct in public office offences, from falsifying expenses to taking bribes from property developers. The corrosive effect on local politics led to a substantial loss of public trust in both the council and the long dominant Labour Party. A younger Labour council leader, untainted by the episode, was installed by embarrassed party bosses, though this did little to dent the public appetite for change, realised by a campaign for the town to become one of England’s first local authorities to be headed by a directly elected mayor, in theory notionally independent of councillors.
The young council leader quickly became the town’s first elected mayor however and Martin Winter then faced his own baptism of fire as he was accused throughout his two terms in office of misconduct, including improper dealings, being investigated by the local authority Standards Board on eleven occasions. The basketcase council lurched from one crisis to the next, with chief executives resigning then suing and councillors at war with each other. It was against this backdrop that Peter Davies was elected in 2009, beating another outsider, an independent businessman, by just 400 votes.
The surprise election of a political outsider on behalf of a fringe party for one of England’s 11 local authority executive mayor posts was greeted with instant media interest, not least on account of the ‘colourful’ candidate’s manifesto promises, which he clearly did not believe he would ever have to deliver. Days after his election, Davies sparred on air with a BBC radio presenter over his ability to implement much of his election promises, the repeated airing of which ensured further prominence outside of the town.
Most of Davies’ manifesto promises were populist measures aimed at lowering local taxes and reducing council bureaucracy, pledges which might not appear out of place in a Conservative candidate’s election literature. The promise to cut the mayor’s salary from £62,000 to £30,000 a year and hold a referendum on the future of the mayoralty itself might appear brave and selfless, if not simply in keeping with his anti-politics approach. An undertaking to freeze senior salaries at the council and stamp out mismanagement might also come across as popular with voters in the economic climate, if not staff, though this is where the list of promises appears on shaky ground owing to both of these being out of his direct control.
A further promise to cut the number of councillors serving on Doncaster council by two-thirds (from 63 to 21), based on the size of city councils in the US, might also resonate with the anti-political mood but is again dependent on legislative approval from central government. Toughness on law and order is another signature Davies policy, though his desire to see the police spend more time “catching criminals” and for the council to penalise those “using foul language in public and spitting in the street” also strays somewhat from his legal remit and powers as mayor.
Of course, a handful of anti-political promises aimed at slashing the number and cost of local government was never likely to ignite as much media interest in one man as the rest of his electoral pledges, most of which could be considered under the bracket “political correctness”. Firmly in Davies’ sights were “politically correct non-jobs” (shorthand for diversity officers and suchlike), “translation services for immigrants” and banning funding for the town’s gay pride festival.
Enlisted in this aim was the Campaign Against Political Correctness, a husband and wife-run website which claims to have 5,000 supporters (Davies Jr is their “parliamentary spokesman”), for whom Davies threw open the town hall books, though it was unsuccessful in actually locating any “politically correct non-jobs” among the council’s staff to cut. The council also quickly attracted the interest of the Taxpayers’ Alliance (Davies Jr is also a parliamentary adviser), the crusading body, which rails against local government spending, for its plans to eradicate waste and cut taxes.
Britain’s conservative tabloids weren’t much further behind in the queue either, as both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express dispatched journalists from London to pen approving profiles on the new mayor. Having told the media early on that the town’s annual gay pride parade was to receive no future council funding, Davies informed the Daily Express (which dubbed him the ‘Marmite mayor’ you either love him or you hate him*) that he had in fact appointed a gay member to his cabinet and claimed to have “lots of friends who are gay”, when accused of being homophobic.
The anti-European mayor is not afraid to burn the town’s bridges with other places either, cancelling its membership (or “un-joining”) of “talking shops” the Local Government Association and the Local Government Information Unit and scrapping the town’s twinning arrangements (or “de-twinning”), not least with the German town of Herten, to whom he told “Auf Wiedersehen” for good when its councillors visited recently.
Davies is proud of having rarely travelled abroad in his life, though interestingly the council's own website claims he represents it and the borough on an "local, national and international platform". The only set-back for the Marmite mayor was over an unfortunate remark to the Daily Mail, which once blasted the two main party leaders for lacking his candour, when he praised the Taliban for their “orderly system of family life” and claimed that ailing Doncaster could learn from it (assuming the council could still translate their policies from the original Farsi). Local servicemen joined Labour MPs in criticising him.
Davies now finds himself, in the delighted eyes of his party’s founder at least, the “Boris Johnson of the North”. Having garlanded praise on him from the off, the Daily Mail helpfully notes that the Labour Party “created Peter Davies”, not from his past membership of the party but from its behaviour in the town which it had long took for granted but failed to deliver for local people. As many have noted, cutting his salary and giving up the municipal limousine is not sufficient alone to turn around Doncaster’s problems, with its shameful record in child safety (the council was subjected to national government intervention in 2009 following a higher than average number of deaths in the town through abuse or neglect) and having secured the poorest grade in the country among local authorities inspected by the Audit Commission.
In fact, the Audit Commission took such a dim view of the council's poor performance that it has subjected the entire local authority to a governance probe, the first in England for several years, which later recommended that central government directly intervened in the running of the council's services. Relations between Davies and the council could be described as parlous at best, with the council voting down his budget and blocking his choice of chief executive at the first opportunity. Despite the publicity his election subsequently provided, a February 2010 survey by the BBC in the town revealed that 87% of those interviewed couldn't name the mayor and almost two-thirds felt the mayoral system should be scrapped. The central government taskforce to turn the council around insisted that the inexperienced Davies took counsel from a mentor.
In May 2010 voters in the town returned a Labour majority council, thus setting the scene for more conflict to come, with the council censuring him for failing to declare his membership of the 'Campaign Against Political Correctness' before appointing the group as advisers to the authority. The new coalition government later imposed a three-man commission to run the local authority. In early 2012 it was agreed by the Labour majority council to hold a referendum alongside the May 2012 local elections on abolishing Davies' post and returning to the indirectly elected council leader system. However, voters in the town rejected the proposal, with 62 per cent voting for the retention of the mayoralty, if not Davies, who has to face the electorate again in 2013.
Mayors from outside the political mainstream, not only Davies but Hartlepool’s thrice-elected mayor Stuart Drummond, give the opponents of their introduction in the UK a handy prop for their argument, but this in itself is ignorant of the factors which often see them elected, namely the failure of the main parties to engage and deliver. The mundane task of actually making local government work is not something the headline-chasers of Fleet Street are quick to recognise however.
*Marmite is a British sandwich spread which, according to its advertising campaign, people either love or hate.
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