Elected mayors might be a good idea – but does anybody care?

Ten cities have an opportunity of shaking up Britain's closed system of doing politics on Thursday. Most of them are unlikely to take it.

Amid the turmoil of the coalition, proposals for introducing elected mayors have been plodding forward quietly, without fuss, towards a destination which could see a genuine shift in power away from Westminster.

Whitehall likes the idea of powerful mayors because, frankly, it gives them something to work with. "Mayors can do a great deal for a city," the Centre for Cities' Alexandra Jones says, "but they can make the biggest difference by unlocking the potential of the local economy." 'Metro mayors' are much more significant than local authority mayors because they can "cover the real economy, not just political boundaries". Handing a single person significant power can help with transport infrastructure and other strategic planning.

For once the interests of central government have coincided with those of voters. They've have had to put up with the convoluted government-by-committee of local authorities for decades. This suits the interests of councillors happy to take a slice of power. It hasn't been particularly helpful in making councils especially gripping.

Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Wakefield will all be voting on whether to make the switch. It looks like only a handful of them, including Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol, will say yes. But there is inertia among many local politicians fearful that their responsibilities will be lost. That's especially the case in places like Nottingham where the local politicians are already very powerful, so have been arguing against any change very forcefully indeed.

The coalition has already experienced the public rejecting its proposals for change. The 'no' campaigns are more local and small-scale than the one which defeated the electoral reform referendum last year, but they could yet prove as effective.

Here's Tom Gash, programme director at the Institute of Government (which has been banging the drum for elected mayors for ages) on exactly that point: "It is clear that the government has struggled to cut through to the electorate – a task made harder by their decision to remain silent on the question of the precise powers that new mayors would be given on top of those currently held by local authority leaders."

It seems incredible that the coalition hasn't been 100% clear about what powers a directly elected mayor will actually have. But that is the state of play as we approach polling day. Doubtless this would have generated outrage if anybody was actually paying attention. Unfortunately, they're not.

"The public love the idea of referenda – they won't actually turn out and vote in it, but they like the idea," says Ipsos Mori's chief executive Ben Page.

"We've done polling in the past which shows people quite like the idea of an identifiable figure in charge of an area. The issue is this is all low salience – it's like reform of the House of Lords.

"The public is not gagging at the bit, saying give me a mayor, it's going to make me happy. They do quite like the accountability that it offers, given they haven't the faintest idea who runs their council, but they're not obsessed by it."

This is why local factors become even more important: there is no national debate taking place, so – perversely – the influence of local politicians in this critical issue is more salient than usual.

Rick Muir, associate director at the IPPR thinktank, believes that with the creation of elected mayors – and the police and crime commissioners replacing police authorities, too – the importance of character in politics is really coming to the fore.

"In order to get people engaged in the process we feel the need to create these offices which depend upon personality," he suggests.

"The reason mayors are being introduced is because we see it as a way of engaging people in local government, in a way they're not engaged in who's the leader of your council, the minutiae of council committees and so on."

There are many disadvantages to having directly elected mayors, but above all else they are a way of helping people get more engaged in politics. That can only be a good thing.