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Chamberlain the despot

Chamberlain the despot

🕔01.May 2012
Birmingham city centre and New Street Station

Last year’s referendum, you will recall, was about the Alternative Vote for parliamentary elections. I was an ambivalent Yes – in favour of electoral reform, but not of AV, a non-proportional system, which was not a lot better than nothing.

However, whenever my support flagged, a quick check of the distortion, dishonesty, and sheer desperation of much of the No campaigners’ case would persuade me that, if this was their best shot, I must be on the right side.

I feel rather the same about an elected mayor for Birmingham. Of course it would personalise election campaigns, concentrate decision-making power, and emphasise even more the executive/non-executive division of councillors’ roles.

And, if we had a strong, robust system of local government, in which councillors and council leaders were known to most citizens, and, once elected, were allowed by central government the powers and discretions sufficient for a city of Birmingham’s size and resource base properly to govern itself, I’d probably again be ambivalent.

Sadly, though, none of these conditions apply. Neither the existing executive-based system nor the committee-based system it replaced have proved outstandingly effective, let alone public-engaging. Above all, neither system has been able to stem the remorseless increase in central government power, direction and control.

Directly elected city mayors – even a respectable-sized bunch of them – won’t magically transform any of this. But, backed by the legislation that introduces them and the ministerial commitment that apparently underpins it, they’re the best chance we’ve had, or are likely to have, for some time.

That’s how I see it, anyway. And, as with AV, if doubts start to intrude, I turn for reassurance to the ‘Vote No to a Power Freak’ campaign, with its offensive insinuations that a Yes vote amounts to an embrace of totalitarian dictatorship, and its decades-old list of corrupt US mayors. Tough bit of research, that: finding ten ‘unworthy’ – not even criminal – mayors in 90 years of a system in which there are well over 3,000 mayors at any one time! Is this really what the No case amounts to?

OK, there’s more, but unfortunately the other “reasons why Brummies don’t want one person to control everything” don’t raise the bar very much higher. In particular, quite apart from the wild and unsubstantiatable slurs, there are the several apparently deliberate and very substantiatable untruths: the referendum costs, mayoral salary, Lord Mayor, accountability and recall.

REFERENDUM COSTS: “The referendum is already costing £250,000, which you are paying for”. The Government’s estimated cost was actually £322,000 – but either way the allegation is untrue, at least in the sense implied. Indeed, back in January, the Labour MP, John Spellar, was reprimanded in Parliament for repeating it when the Delegated Legislation Committee debated the Draft Referendum Order:

“The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green made a wild and incorrect assertion when he said that we expect the people of Birmingham to pay for the referendum. Central Government will pay the cost …. That was explained to Parliament [back in June] last year.”

MAYORAL SALARY: “An elected Mayor would be able to pay himself [or, presumably, herself] the same salary as the current Chief Executive: £200,000-plus a year”. Maybe not a total untruth, but effectively one – as the Vote No campaign helpfully confirms, by referring readers, in one click from ‘It will cost more in hard times’, to the story of Leicester’s Mayor.

Sir Peter Soulsby, the story reveals, would receive a salary of £100,000 – if the sum, which had been proposed by the Council’s independent remuneration panel, were approved by the full council.

Only if he had opted for less than the remuneration panel recommended could Soulsby be said to have decided his own salary. And he adds: “It’s important to remember we now also save £250,000 a year due to no longer having a chief executive” – not to mention the allowances of the former council leader.

It may be that an elected mayor for Birmingham wouldn’t dispense completely with a CE. Even so, the likelihood must be that the role, and salary, would be reduced as the mayor took over some of the functions of the current head of the paid service and maybe combined others with those of the chief finance or monitoring officers. To invent and then headline the mayor’s salary in isolation is simplistic in the extreme.

THE LORD MAYOR: “Birmingham could lose its Lord Mayor, who presides over cherished city functions such as the Remembrance Day parade.” This is just wilful scaremongering. The Lord Mayor, the First Citizen of Birmingham, is an historic ceremonial, non-partisan and non-executive office, its holder a member of the council, chosen by other councillors for normally a one-year term. It will remain unchanged, whether or not we have an elected executive mayor.

ACCOUNTABILITY and RECALL: “An elected Mayor would not be accountable to anybody for 4 years – even if the Mayor was incompetent, you would not be able to get rid of them.” The first part of this is plain wrong – unless all possible forms and degrees of accountability are reduced to the single ultimate one of dismissability. A directly elected mayor, like a councillor-elected leader, would and should be held to account by the full council and, in Birmingham, by one of the most active overview and scrutiny regimes in the country.

The huge difference would be that a mayor would be directly accountable and answerable to us – the city’s residents and voters, by whom s/he was elected and may, or may not, be re-elected. That’s why mayors produce personal manifestos, hold regular surgeries, answer direct questions online, use Facebook and Twitter, hold Meet the Mayor events, and, in the case of Bedford’s Dave Hodgson, highly informal Pints in the Parishes meetings.

The second part of this accountability and dismissability assertion is also wrong – though here, as I noted in another recent blog on April 21, Government Ministers are to blame, as well as the No campaigners’ genuine or feigned ignorance.

The fact is that the Government has addressed this major issue of how to recall or get rid of an incompetent mayor that we, rather than a couple of dozen councillor colleagues, have elected. What’s more, they’ve produced a policy.

The Impact Assessment of the mayoral policy in January 2011stated (p.9) that: “Given the scope of the additional powers and freedoms which may be given to mayors, the Government believes that the accountability regime for [them] should be stronger … and should include a recall mechanism. [The] Government intends to introduce such a recall mechanism at a later date, having considered the issue alongside proposals for recall for other public officials” (my emphasis).

No, we’ve not been told why recall of ‘public officials’ like MPs, who exercise no personal executive power, has priority over elected mayors, who will exercise shedloads. Nor do we know how the recall mechanism might work, or even the extent to which it would be in our hands, rather than those of councillors. And no, at no point during the mayoral campaign have Ministers even hinted at when the ‘later date’ might arrive.

It’s all pathetically inept, but it’s also inaccurate of the No campaign to imply that the current lack of an enacted recall procedure is an intentionally permanent state of affairs.

As I’ve suggested, my chief reaction to this repeated disregard of the truth on the part of the No campaign is one of irritation – otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered with the preceding thousand words. There’s one exception, though, which prompts more amusement than irritation – and that’s the regularity with which Joseph Chamberlain, from whom this very website takes its name, is dragged in as a silent witness for the opposition.

Cllr Michael Wilkes in a guest blog wrote of how Mayor Chamberlain, in making Birmingham ‘the best run city in the world’ had done so through a committee system in which he himself was “an elected councillor like all the others.”

Likewise, Cllr James Hutchings in this week’s Birmingham Post: “Joe Chamberlain was a very powerful mayor and achieved great things for Birmingham, but he was an elected councillor and worked with the committee system.”

Visionary municipal reformer – undeniably. Charismatic political leader – ditto. Elected councillor – yes. Like all the others – you simply must be joking.

The 1873 municipal elections that brought Chamberlain the mayoralty were among the first to be fought on explicitly party lines: Liberal reformers against the ‘Beer and Bible’ Tories. But to all intents and purposes it was a mayoral election – rather like those in countries like France and Spain, where the party leader and prospective mayor is head of the party slate and known by all electors.

The Liberals won, and, as everyone knew would happen, Chamberlain became Mayor – and did precisely what today’s No campaigners claim to fear, completely transforming the previously non-partisan one-year post into that of effectively a three-year elected, despotic executive mayor.

Despotic? Yes – and his self-description, not mine. His reform programme did indeed, as he claimed on leaving office in 1876, leave the city “parked, paved, assized, marketed, Gas-and-Watered, and improved”, but the remarkable achievement owed little to internal council democracy.

As for working with the committee system, it was more a question of working the system – period.

“I had to use my despotic authority a little in arranging the estimates and took the matter out of the hands of the Finance Committee for the purpose, but they are bona fide estimates and will wash.”

I don’t know whether it will come as a relief or regret to the No campaigners, but I do earnestly assure them that no 21st Century elected mayor will exercise anything approaching the unchecked personal power in which Chamberlain revelled.

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