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The 4,000 Labour Party members who will choose Brum’s first elected mayor

The 4,000 Labour Party members who will choose Brum’s first elected mayor

🕔24.Jan 2012
Birmingham Council House.

Some 700,000 people who are registered to vote will get the chance to choose Birmingham’s first directly elected mayor, assuming a referendum on May 3 delivers a mandate for change.

But a far, far smaller electorate is set  to have the decisive say on who gets the top job.

If we assume it is highly likely, based on the 2010 General Election results, that most Brummies will vote a Labour mayor, then there’s only one question in town: who will Labour select as the party’s official candidate?

Labour’s selection process for the mayoral nomination will be based on an election where relatively few votes will be cast, with participation in the selection procedure confined to party members. Any suggestion that a primary-type process should be undertaken, where anyone in Birmingham would be able to choose Labour’s candidate, are likely to be rejected, partly on the grounds of cost but also because of extreme uncertainty over just who would triumph in such a process.

The Chamberlain Files understands that there are about 2,500 households in Birmingham with Labour members. Even a generous calculation of 2.5 members per household would put the city membership at not much more than 6,000. In reality, the figure is almost certainly closer to 5,000. And even if the ‘turnout’ among those choosing a candidate hits 80 per cent of the membership, that would mean the Mayor of Birmingham could effectively be elected by 4,000 people.

No wonder then that Sion Simon, seen by many as Labour’s front runner for the mayoral selection, is fond of telling friends that he has to win three elections to get the job.

The former Labour MP for Erdington has at first to hope that the referendum returns a decisive yes vote in favour of replacing the city council leader and cabinet system with a mayor.

Then he has to win the contest to be selected as the Labour candidate for mayor.

And finally, there is the mayoral election itself to win, probably in November.

Out of the three elections, winning the poll to choose a mayor would appear to be a fairly safe bet for whoever is selected as Labour’s candidate. At the 2010 General Election in Birmingham, Labour candidates polled almost 170,000 votes against 116,000 for Conservative and 97,000 for Liberal Democrat candidates.

There is of course some uncertainty over how the supplementary vote system chosen by the Government for mayoral elections will play out in practice.

On the ballot paper, voters will be invited to mark their first and second choices. All of the first choices will be counted and, if a candidate has achieved more than 50 per cent of votes cast, they will be declared the winner.

If no candidate gets a majority, the two candidates with the most first preference votes continue to a second round and all other candidates are eliminated. In Birmingham, this is most likely to mean that the Labour and Conservative candidates remain in the race – barring, of course, the emergence of a charismatic Independent candidate.

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.

If the Labour candidate fails to win an outright majority of the first preferences, the chances of becoming mayor rest on gaining sufficient second preferences.  If the 2010 General Election results in Birmingham were replicated in a mayoral vote, the Labour candidate would fall just short of obtaining an overall majority. In that case, the Liberal Democrat candidate, and all other minor party candidates, would be eliminated and their second preference votes redistributed to the Labour and Conservative candidates.

It is difficult to imagine, although not impossible, that there would not be sufficient second preference votes by Liberal Democrats to carry the Labour candidate over the winning line. In any case, even a small increase in the Labour vote in Birmingham since the 2010 General Election would be enough to give the party outright victory in the mayoral poll.

It is a racing certainty that the first elected Mayor of Birmingham will be Labour. But which one of the three in the race at the moment is likely to be victorious?

Mr Simon is seen as the front runner, having spent over a year campaigning, developing policy and attempting to build a broad coalition of backers particularly among Labour’s ethnic minority membership.

He won lavish praise from Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls at a recent lunchtime meeting. Mr Balls stopped short of declaring his support for Mr Simon, but the implication of backing from the very top of the Labour Party was clear enough.

Labour’s two other declared candidates, city council opposition leader Sir Albert Bore and Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart, have so far conducted far more low key campaigns, preferring to follow Labour’s official line that the race cannot begin in earnest until a referendum yes vote is declared.

It is possible that more Labour names will emerge once the referendum result is known. Rumours are circulating that Hodge Hill MP and Shadow Cabinet member Liam Byrne is considering throwing his hat into the ring. The absence of an Asian or African-Caribbean Labour candidate has been commented on in a city which is on course to reach ethnic majority status within 15 years.

All the political positioning and campaigning in the world will count for nothing, if the people of Birmingham use the referendum to deal a fatal ‘no’ vote to the mayor. It is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty the referendum result, or the turnout.

The fact is that Birmingham has already expressed an opinion in favour of a mayor. In 2001, the then Labour-led city council held a consultative ballot and three types of governance were put to voters – the existing council leader and cabinet system, an elected mayor and an elected mayor working with a council manager.

Just over half of those taking part in the poll – 53 per cent – opted for the two types of elected mayor on offer, while 46 per cent backed the existing system. The city council, which was then overwhelmingly opposed to a mayor, voted to retain the leader and cabinet system.

Eleven years on, there is no reason to suppose that the people of Birmingham are any less disposed to change than they were in 2001.

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