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Mike Whitby launches the me-me-me for mayor website

Mike Whitby launches the me-me-me for mayor website

🕔10.Apr 2012

In 2001 Mike Whitby, then the deputy leader of the city council Conservative group, helped to finance a successful campaign to stop Birmingham from being governed by a directly elected mayor.

His argument was that such a position was manifestly un-British, undemocratic, and that there was a real possibility that the mayor would turn out to be little more than a corrupt dictator.

The Noes won on that occasion, leaving Birmingham to struggle on with the council leader-cabinet system amidst a gradual realisation that Britain’s second largest city would benefit from having a mayor.

Eleven years later, Mike Whitby has turned full circle and now believes that a mayor for Birmingham would be a jolly good thing. Paradoxically, the very argument that he used to oppose the office in 2001 – that it is dangerous to place too much power into the hands of one individual – is now advanced as the justification for having a mayor.

He’s not saying that power would be too dangerous, rather that it is essential.  His experience suggests that mayors need to get their hands on Whitehall budgets, and that they must have the clout to push spending decisions through. One of the crowning achievements of his administration, the redevelopment of New Street Station, would have happened a lot sooner if he had possessed mayoral powers to crack heads together, he reckons.

Having tasted for eight years the very limited powers enjoyed by the leader of Birmingham City Council, Coun Whitby has decided he wants to stay at the top table and says he has been promised by the Prime Minister that a mayor will have direct access to government at cabinet level.

To help him fulfil his ambitions, he has launched a glitzy website which appears to be devoted to a single subject – the unadulterated promotion of Mike Whitby as the leader of Birmingham. This truly can be summed up as the me, me, me website.

There are photographs and videos of Mike Whitby meeting national and international leaders, and a reference to his Great Leader Ship, which unkind critics have taken to be some kind of super-vehicle designed to whisk the great man into and out of Birmingham from his home in Warley Woods.

A section on speeches is a bit of a let down, consisting chiefly of Whitby’s plodding formal council budget speeches. The Gettysburg Address, they are not.

Clearly, some tinkering around the edges is required by the web team. Whitby’s new slogan, of which he is very proud, Birmingham is Britain’s Best Bet, is lost in translation and appears as Birmingham is Britain’s Best Bit – although, I suppose either could work.

I’ve trawled through the site a few times now, and can report that there appears to be just one mention of the fact that Coun Whitby’s Conservative group has governed Birmingham in coalition with the Liberal Democrats since 2004. Tellingly, there are at least 20 name checks for Coun Whitby, but there is not even one acknowledgment that some of the improvements he takes credit for – housing and adult social services – owe as much to the drive of individual cabinet members and officers as to the foresight of the council leader.

This is by far the most presidential approach to Birmingham politics that I have witnessed in 12 years, and very much sets the tone for a Mike for Mayor campaign. If Coun Whitby gets the Conservative nomination, which seems to be a given due largely to the complete lack of anyone else wanting the job, we are unlikely to hear much about Tory values in a city where a traditional Conservative candidate is always going to struggle to obtain an overall majority of votes cast.

Is it possible that Coun Whitby could win a mayoral election in Birmingham? On the face of it, the odds and national opinion polls seem heavily stacked against him. At the 2010 General Election, Labour candidates polled almost 170,000 votes against 116,000 for Conservative and 97,000 for Liberal Democrat candidates.

However, the voting method chosen by the Government for the mayoral elections is the Supplementary Vote system. There are two columns on the ballot paper, one for voters to mark their first choice and one in which to mark a second choice, although there is no compulsion to make a second choice. All of the first choices are counted and, if a candidate has polled more than 50 per cent of votes cast, they are declared the winner.

If no candidate gets a majority, the top two candidates continue to a second round and all other candidates are eliminated. The second choice votes of all eliminated candidates are then counted, and any second votes cast for the remaining two candidates are added to their first round totals Whichever candidate has the most votes after the second preferences have been allocated is declared the winner.

Coun Whitby must hope for three things to occur. First, that the Labour candidate does not win more than 50 per cent of votes on the first ballot. Second, that he can pick up a large number of second preference votes. Third, that Labour’s vote is badly dented by unforeseen circumstances, possibly the intervention of a Respect Party candidate.

Such a combination of events is unlikely, but not impossible. Whatever you think about Mike Whitby, he has the self-belief – some might say huge ego – commonly found in successful mayoral candidates. If only he can persuade enough people that he isn’t really a Tory, of course.

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