Yes or No? March 5th, 2012
I’ve got to admit that the debate about whether we should have an elected mayor in Birmingham has left me completely cold. I can’t really motivate myself to have an opinion one way or the other. I’d say that this isn’t a symptom of apathy, I’ve worked in the very bowels of our local government and have an unhealthy interest in governance.
With the referendum in only a few short weeks I’ve decided this is something that I probably need to have an opinion on. You never know, it might ignite public interest and it would be handy to be able to argue one way or the other convincingly.
There seems to be a fairly vociferous campaigns on both sides and I’ve been trying to see if they have any compelling arguments either way. The Yes to a Birmingham Mayor campaign looks fairly slick and purports to have at least some grass roots support. I’m not completely sure how widespread this really is, I don’t meet many people who are that bothered by the efficacy of the Leader/Cabinet model of government.
We do need to remember that when the Birmingham Mail tried get a petition together to trigger a referendum they met a steely disinterest.
Looking at the Yes campaign they make some interesting points which I will go through laboriously :-
1 ) You can directly elect your leader and if they fail, you can get rid of them at the next election.
That seems fair enough, the current system means the council leader is selected by the ruling party. It’s not the most accountable system.
2 ) You will know who your mayor is and the rest of the world will too.
There is nothing to stop the leader of the council being visible. Having the title of mayor does not excuse poor communications. I’m not sure why the rest of the world is relevant, if people in Birmingham understood slightly more about who was in charge then that would be a start.
3 ) Birmingham is struggling and a leader with a genuine mandate can drive positive change.
I don’t buy this. I think change is achieved through consensus and I’d say that the current system, where Councillors select their leader means that they have more of an interest in achieving change. If you consider Birmingham to be struggling then this is a symptom of the policy environment rather than the system that brings it to us.
4 ) You’ll be able to see how decisions are made and who makes them.
The current system is pretty transparent and I can’t see there being much of a change if we have a mayor. In fact all the systems will remain the same.
5) A mayor can make sure decisions are made closer to you and your community.
I would completely dispute this. At the moment local Councillors take local issues and feed them up to their leadership, if you have a Councillor who is in the ruling party then they might have some influence. With a mayor the intelligence from communities will be disconnected from the policy process. If decisions by a mayor reflect local views then this would happen despite the system rather than because of it.
6 ) A whole layer of unaccountable government bureaucracy can be removed by combining the Leader of the council and the Chief Executive.
There is nothing to stop us combining the role of leader of the council and chief executive now. It would be a spectacularly stupid thing to do but we could do it. The local authority can influence the spending of around £3 billion, the day to day management of this should not be left with someone who wins a popularity contest.
7 ) The mayor can celebrate our successes and bring people together to solve problems by being a recognisable leader.
Again there is nothing implicit in the mayoral system that means we can’t already do this with better communication.
8 ) A directly elected mayor can help Birmingham fulfil it’s potential. Nearly every major city in the world has a directly elected mayor. Birmingham deserves one too.
Is this even true? I mean the bit about every other City in the world having one? It seems quite a claim. As for Birmingham deserving one, well they do say that people deserve the Government they vote for.
Comparing this with the No campaign becomes a bit more problematic. First off the web site looks like it was made twenty years ago. The aesthetic shouldn’t undermine the central point but the reality is it doesn’t present an image you can engage with. This is emphasised by the No campaigns ability to get into an argument with itself on the front page.
After offering to supply speakers for events it has a little debate with itself on what the optimum number of speakers should be. Glancing at the bottom of the page you will notice that this has been put together by MP John Hemming, the written word is not his natural medium (or seemingly web design).
There is a handy list of reasons for a no vote so let’s go through those as well (I haven’t linked to the individual points as they use frames, yes frames in the 21st Century) :-
1 ) One person cannot listen to a million
This is a fair point and is a good rebuttal made to the yes claim that decisions will be closer to communities. This point does drift off into nonsensical rubbish about how a mayor would hold an advice surgery, as nobody with any sense expects them to do this we’ll just ignore it.
2 ) It will cost more in hard times
Any way you look at it, it will cost more money. If it delivers better governance then it could be a price worth paying.
3 ) It is not within the British tradition
Er, what the hell has that got to do with anything? If the current system doesn’t work then change it.
4 ) It leads to corruption
This is a bold claim. There have been corrupt mayors but I don’t think Birmingham can really claim any sort of anti-corruption moral high ground with the existing system.
5 ) It takes attention off important issues and concentrates on personalities
I suppose the mayor possibly being a more visible presence could be considered to be a focus on personality but I can’t see that this could be represented as a bad thing. You only have to look at the City Council sponsored Forward magazine, and their fascination with current leader Mike Whitby, to realise that we have this already.
6 ) Birmingham’s villages will be ignored with concentration on the City Centre
I haven’t seen a more succint summary of what has been wrong with Birmingham’s governance for the last 20 years. The Bullring and the new Library are shiny testaments to how much Birmingham’s “villages” are currently considered. So no change there then.
7 ) The mayor is likely to spend a lot of time travelling outside Birmingham and less time in Birmingham
This is probably the most amusing claim. So where is Mike Whitby this week? The Carribean? India? Dubai? China? The man’s not short of frequent flyer points.
8 ) The pro campaign cannot explain how it will improve things
I have some sympathy with this. The yes campaign doesn’t make a very compelling argument but simply stating this doesn’t take the debate any further. It actually comes across as a bit childish.
9 ) People normally vote against it and Stoke got rid of one
This is just strange. The argument for not having one is that a number of other referendums have said no in other cities. The whole point of this process is we get a referendum so we can decide. If we don’t want one we don’t have to have one.
10 ) Birmingham’s successes in the past came without a directly elected Mayor
Well this is true. Equally Birmingham’s failures have come without one as well. Reading the text associated with this claim is just confusing. It seems to be alluding to an article that it claims was written in 1890 yet alludes to the 1940s. A remarkably prescient bit of writing.
The no campaign does have some good points, it just makes them in a really ham fisted way.
I was referred to this article written by Cllr James Hutchings that makes a much more coherent case for not having a mayor. It covers many of the same points but is better written and less patronising. I’ve always been a fan of Cllr Hutchings.
The problem with all of this is, although the no campaign hasn’t made a good argument, they don’t have to. We know how it works now, we need to be persuaded that the system in the future will work better. I can’t see that the yes campaign has come anywhere near doing that.
There are a few things that aren’t addressed by either group. In reality will the new system be any different? Ostensibly, no.
To campaign successfully across a city the size of Birmingham you need infrastructure, you need people putting leaflets through doors, you need money to make leaflets. An independant would need to buy this in or generate a lot of good will really quickly. I don’t believe that examples such as Hartlepool and Middlesborough are relevant to us, both are much smaller in area and both had candidates that had their profile raised through other media. (there is an excellent assessment of why I’m wrong here)
Would a mayor aligned from one party be that different to the current situation? I don’t think so.
After all this I’m not sure I’m any closer to having an opinion. Hopefully the campaign will galvanise some sort of proper arguments one way or the other, though they better hurry up.