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Birmingham anti-mayor campaign ‘fighting yesterday’s battles with yesterday’s weapons’

Birmingham anti-mayor campaign ‘fighting yesterday’s battles with yesterday’s weapons’

🕔12.Mar 2012

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The campaign against an elected mayor for Birmingham is gradually losing the plot, and any sense of political perspective. This can be the only explanation for distributing an ill-judged leaflet comparing the fight against a mayor with the war against Hitler.

Recipients must make up their own minds before depositing the circular in the nearest waste paper bin, but surely most people will feel that the message – inviting Brummies to fight back against a mythical dictator, complete with pictures of a Blitz-torn Birmingham – is at the very least distasteful and should play no part in any grown-up discussion about the mayoral issue.

Naturally, there is a reason behind the no campaign’s use of scare tactics. It is becoming clear that the opponents of elected mayors are probably fighting a losing battle against public opinion that is clearly in favour of change, so a certain amount of panic is setting in.

Arguably, there is a general acceptance that the current council leader-cabinet system is not producing the goods in Birmingham, or in most other large cities. Most people are comfortable now with the idea of a London mayor, something that will
continue to grow as the Boris versus Ken show reaches a climax on May 3, which is when the people of Birmingham will decide in a referendum whether to move to a mayoral system.

The mayor of London is universally known, and not just in the capital. Voters know who is in charge, and who to blame when things go wrong. There is a feeling, justified or not, that Boris Johnson delivered projects like the Olympic Games, Cross Rail and the traffic-beating Boris Bikes. Most Londoners I talk to believe it is a huge advantage to have a mayor.

Eleven years ago, a Vote No to an Elected Dictator campaign sprung up when it seemed possible that Birmingham might follow London in getting an elected mayor. The campaign was backed by the same people who are calling for a ‘no’ vote in 2012, although city council leader Mike Whitby has for obvious reasons distanced himself from the cause he helped to lead in 2001.

Time has moved on in the past decade, but the anti-mayor campaigners have no new armoury in their bag. They are fighting yesterday’s battles with yesterday’s weapons.

Last week’s BBC WM poll on the Birmingham mayoral issue was interesting. Not because it found that 59 per cent of those questioned were unaware of the referendum – most pundits would have expected an even greater figure given Birmingham City Council’s reluctance to debate the issue.

The fascinating thing about the poll was that just over half of those questioned – 53 per cent – were in favour of an elected mayor, while 74 per cent said they would vote in the referendum. No one else appears to have mentioned this, so I will, but the 53 per cent approval figure matches exactly the council’s 2001 consultative ballot which also found 53 per cent in favour of one of two different types of elected mayor.

No wonder the anti-mayor campaign is beginning to show signs of desperation. Its main claim, that Birmingham would be electing a dictator who you just couldn’t get rid of, is plain nonsense.

In fact, it is far easier to dispense with the services of a duff mayor than it is to get rid of a useless council leader since a mayor must face the judgment of 720,000 Birmingham electors once every four years.  An under-performing council leader can, and often does, manage to hang on by persuading a majority of his political group to remain faithful, usually by offering jobs in the form of scrutiny and regulatory committee chairmanships and cabinet positions.

There has been one occasion since 2004 when it seemed possible that the Conservative leader of Birmingham city Council, Mike Whitby, might have been toppled. Right-wing councillors were concerned at Coun Whitby’s backing for what they saw as ‘socialist’ muncipalisation in the form of loans for expensive public projects during a time of economic hardship, notably a £187 million civic library, £20 million for Warwickshire County Cricket Club, and plans to establish a Muncipal Bank.

A leadership bid by Northfield councillor Randal Brew failed following a secret vote among 30-odd councillors at a Tory group meeting. The voting figures were never released. This is not a democratic way to run a city of a million people.

Oddly enough, the one strong argument that the ‘no’ campaign could use has not been brought into play. The Government’s failure to specify the powers that will be available to the mayor of Birmingham is damaging the case for change – a point made effectively by the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. People are being asked to back a new system of governance without really knowing how the mayor will differ from a council leader – other than being elected by the whole city, and having the power to appoint a cabinet and chief officers.

The mood for change is great, and I believe the referendum will deliver a decisive ‘yes’ vote. But Ministers can and should help frame debate between now and May 3 by spelling out how a Birmingham-Boris will make a real difference.

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