London, where fDiMagazine has its headquarters, had mayoral elections in May that were closely fought, at times entertaining (complete with profanity-laced exchanges between the candidates) and, unlike some municipal elections, felt genuinely important. Not only were the two contenders very different characters with contrasting views of how to best run one of the world’s few truly global hubs and Europe’s most significant financial centre, but, symbolically, there was also much at stake, in terms of which figurehead would represent London when it hosts the Olympic Games this summer.

The capital had been unique among major UK cities in having a true mayor until Liverpool elected its first in the same spring elections that saw the incumbent win in London. But they remain in the minority and a debate goes on as to whether other cities should have mayors too. In nearly 50 referendums on whether to establish an elected mayor in English local authorities, only 13 have passed. The Lord Mayor post is more popular but is largely ceremonial.

Advertisement

I do not share the English aversion to mayors. Speaking as a journalist, they are almost always more interesting to interview than national or regional politicians, and from an FDI perspective, they are almost always better informed and more passionate about the topic. A good mayor can do a lot for FDI promotion, and the world is full of them.

Political systems vary wildly, and some mayors have more clout than others; performance levels, needless to say, also vary wildly, and some mayors are more effective than others. But the role itself has much to commend. Mayors are close enough to the action yet above the fray. They can be hands-on with economic development in a way national or regional politicians cannot, but are high profile and can capture the world stage in a way other local politicians would struggle to achieve. London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, for example, draws standing-room-only crowds when he gives speeches at international conferences. This is partly down to his charismatic, quirky persona, but it is hard to imagine the punters flocking to hear from a local council leader no matter what he or she had to say and whatever the manner of delivery.

I am not knocking city councillors, many of whom are clued up and do their bit for economic development; but FDI is a global game and cities that want to compete need to be able to bring out the big hitters. London and Liverpool look to come out swinging.

Courtney Fingar is the editor of fDi Magazine. Email: courtney.fingar@ft.com