Staging the Debates
In many ways, today is one of the days for which the Chamberlain Files was started. This blog was created to follow – encourage, even – local political developments as Birmingham and the West Midlands edged forward under ‘localism’ and ‘devolution’ policies.
So today, we are particularly pleased to announce a series of Public Debates that will feature all five main candidates in the race to become the first elected Mayor of the West Midlands. Four Public Debates will take place across the region, starting on 7th March.
The events are being produced by Urban Communications, sister firm of Files publisher RJF Public Affairs, and backed by a range of partners.
The election of the first West Midlands Mayor will be a landmark political moment in the region.
The creation of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and the forthcoming Mayoral election represents a huge advance for an economic area where pan-region, cross-party working has hitherto not been a recognised characteristic.
However, the Mayoral role does not have widespread public awareness or understanding, whilst local politicians have, on the whole, only reluctantly agreed to having a Mayor as part of a devolution settlement due to promises of more investment and powers.
With no other elections currently taking place on the same day, 4th May 2017, there are real fears of a low turnout for the election. That could have considerable consequences for the mandate and political capital of the incoming Mayor.
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about mayoral debates – which candidates are appearing at them, who’s invited into the audience, which candidate appears to benefit from the chair’s favour and a perceived lack of public and media interest.
We have been working for some months behind the scenes to plan this series of Public Debates. I have to report that all the candidates signed up to the idea of these events straight away and we have worked closely with each of them and their campaign teams.
An engaging campaign is essential to drive voter engagement. Big debates, with all the candidates and the local media on board with the public fully involved, are essential. This election needs big moments to bring the contest and the opportunity to life – and that’s what we hope to facilitate. Our mission is to increase awareness, engagement and above all turnout on 4th May.
Also enthusiastic backers of the project from its inception have been our colleagues in local newspapers. Marc Reeves – our former colleague and founder of this very blog, now Editor of the Birmingham Mail – his colleague at the Coventry Telegraph, Keith Perry, and Express and Star Editor Keith Harrison are all playing vital roles. They will chair the debates with me, helping their readers put questions directly to the candidates. The local titles – on and offline – will be responsible for selecting public audiences for each of the events. That process will start from next week.
We think it is the right time, starting in early March, to try and engage the wider public in what this new office of Mayor is all about, what is at stake, who is in the running and what are they promising.
Staging the events in venues which are accessible to the public; which provide great backdrops for Public Debates and which symbolise some of the best features of the West Midlands is also important. So, I appreciate the incredible support we have received from the Black Country Living Museum, Coventry Cathedral, Birmingham Hippodrome together with DanceXchange and the NEC Group in being able stage these Public Debates.
Alongside the local newspapers and the candidates, we are supported by a range of partners in helping to stage the Public Debates and share useful information for voters on the accompanying website. Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, along with their colleagues in the Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire Chambers, and leading think tank Centre for Cities are principal partners.
Other organisations supporting the events include Purpose (branding and design), PSP (technical services) and Action Starter (technology). Other partners include BPS Birmingham, the Lunar Society and Downtown in Business Birmingham.
Hopefully, it’s now time to stop talking about who is at or not at some debates and make sure we are ready to put the questions that matter to all the candidates when they stand up at the Public Debates, starting in just under a month.
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