What if Birmingham were an American city that had just voted Democrat?
It will surely mystify future historians that the Chamberlain Files was apparently the only public affairs platform not to have anyone sharing their views, insights, despair or alarm about the events of one of the most extraordinary weeks in post-war democratic politics. With posterity in mind, therefore, I decided to break the omerta (it’s been too overwhelming for words, Ed.).
Nothing hugely profound, I’m afraid, but some musings about how we might collectively be feeling today if Birmingham were an American city that had voted Democrat – as a clear majority of city electors almost certainly would have done.
Exit polls provide countless explanations of how the Presidential election was won and lost. Clinton, for example, had a 12% lead over Trump among women voters, but it wasn’t enough. An 18% lead among 18-29 year olds, a 29% lead among unmarried women, a 36% lead among Hispanics and Asians, a 54% lead among LGBTs, but none of these leads were quite enough – at least, not quite enough in the right places.
Likewise, the cities. Clinton had a 24% lead in what Americans call cities – that is, urban settlements with 50,000+ populations: think Kidderminster or Halesowen! 31 of the largest 35 voted Democrat, in several cases outpolling Obama in 2012.
What proved decisive, though, was Trump’s 28% lead in ‘small cities’ and rural areas – many of the latter having apparently eluded the less than exhaustive probings of the pre-election polls.
The scale of this urban-rural division surprised some American observers, but it shouldn’t have surprised us. 33 of our 36 metropolitan districts are majority or minority Labour-controlled, and, as shown in the following table, last year’s General Election produced a comparable picture to the American one.
As ever, London was the focus of media attention, highlighted as one of Labour’s few consolations, with a 7% increased vote share and a gain of seven seats.
But similar things were happening in the other city regions, including the West Midlands, where Labour did markedly better in the seven local authorities comprising the former met county and current Combined Authority (and metro mayoral) area than it did across the much wider official region.
Similarly in the North West, although in the two Combined Authorities there Labour is considerably stronger, and understandably more confident of (I almost typed “complacent about”) winning next May’s mayoral polls.
And it’s mayors and their cities that prompted this blog – though more America’s city mayors today than our metro mayors tomorrow.
How would we feel, I wondered, if, as a major American city, we’d just experienced the election of a national government headed by someone most of us didn’t vote for, some had good reasons to fear, who, though no ideological neo-liberal himself, advocated tax cuts and even tax evasion for the rich, banning or deporting of immigrants, reduced public housing, and, as far as we could tell, was committed to abolish, undermine, deregulate or privatise much of what we believed made for a civilised, humane society?
What might we feel, not purely personally but as Birmingham citizens, about the possible consequences for our city, its services and general wellbeing?
Let’s take it in stages. Nearly two-thirds of America’s 50 largest cities – those with populations over about 350,000 (think Coventry) – are run by Democrat (male) mayors, with Democrat-dominated councils. It’s nowadays a toss-up as to whether there are more women or Republicans among these big city mayors, and currently it’s neck and neck at about 12 each.
One of the male Democrat ones, incidentally – name of Kevin Johnson, would you believe (so common, Ed.) – hit the news recently for being physically attacked by, and in turn attacking, a disgruntled constituent with a coconut cream pie, which is the kind of political engagement we perhaps don’t see enough of in Victoria Square.
As it happens, and contrary to any impression conveyed in the newspaper report, Sacramento’s Kevin Johnson is in the minority among these big city leaders in being, governmentally, a ‘weak’ mayor.
This means that in US government’s perpetual balance of powers he can’t, despite being the elected executive, veto the legislative council’s decisions, or make appointments, or do much at all, without council approval. The two must work together, whereas a ‘strong’ mayor more or less bosses the show. And it’s the size and relative autonomy of that show that concerns us here, not the mayor’s constitutional standing.
In an American city even approaching the million-plus size of Birmingham it would be extensive: all the functions and services you’d expect – schools, family and support services, public health, water management and sanitation, roads and transportation, planning and development, libraries and cultural affairs, police, fire and emergency services – PLUS taxation.
That PLUS is the key to the huge difference between a British and hypothetical American city of Birmingham – a key that could be seen in a public protest that took place here in the past week, this one billed as the first national demonstration against cuts in libraries, museums and galleries.
It was in London, as these things virtually always are, but this was different. These cuts being protested about were overwhelmingly those being made by local authorities in these most local – and most discretionary – of services and facilities, because they have barely enough money to provide their statutorily required services and still balance their budgets.
Part of the reason for London was that the demo organisers know there’s limited point in protesting against discretionary service cuts in places like, say, Liverpool – also in the news as its mayor considers calling the first local referendum of its kind to raise council tax.
As mayor Joe Anderson explains, the scale of government grant cuts since 2010 has left the council with insufficient funds for even basic services like adult social care and children’s services:
If we closed all our 19 libraries, scrapped our nine sports centres, cut all spending on culture, stopped maintaining the parks, halted all highways repairs and street cleaning, and switched off 50,000 lights, that would only save us £68 million – and we need to find £90 million.
Liverpool council is currently consulting residents to see if they agree with the holding a real referendum – that they and the council would have to pay for – to raise council tax by up to 10%, in order to reduce cuts in these basic services.
It’s a dilemma that only in degree differs from those facing dozens of particularly urban councils and their leaders – and also that crystallises the huge differences between city government here and in the US. I’ve used for comparison Birmingham’s ‘sister city’ of Chicago.
First, and most obviously, Chicago could – and in the past has done, regularly, and to its current cost – set a deficit budget, just like national government.
Few, if any, council leaders and CEOs would argue for this particular financial discretion, but it does represent a big first weapon in central government’s armoury of controls and constraints under which it requires our local governments to operate.
Chicago’s present mayor, Rahm Emanuel – previously President Obama’s chief-of-staff – prides himself on having annually cut the city’s structural deficit, down this year to a mere $233 million on a budget of $9.3 billion!
At first glance, and in slightly duller colours, Chicago’s budget pie chart looks similar to the ‘Where the money comes from’ pie chart in Birmingham’s Council Tax Booklet. It’s just the numbers that differ a bit.
In Chicago’s pie Grants account for 16% of income. In Birmingham’s there are several different, and quite sizeable, slices: Revenue Support Grant, Dedicated Schools Grant, Grants to Reimburse Expenditure, and so on – amounting in total to nearly £2 billion, or 64%: four times Chicago’s grant dependency.
Taxes are the reverse. Birmingham’s modest-sized single slice of Council Tax (£288 million in 2016/17) is 9% of the council’s £3 billion+ budget – or half the proportion of Chicago’s Property Tax.
But in addition Chicago’s mayor and councillors have access to Income, Sales, Utility, and Other taxes, that in combination contribute another 26% of the budget – bringing it up to 44% or nearly five times Birmingham’s proportion.
Oh yes, in case you’re wondering about the tasty green Aviation slice at the top, that represents the council’s complete administrative control of Chicago’s two major airports – O’Hare and Midway International – and of the $45 billion in annual economic activity they generate.
American cities, in short, substantially run their own show, with nothing resembling the extreme dependence ours have on the political colour of the national government or the policy whims of the head of government, let alone those of the Treasury Secretary/Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The idea of the country’s second city having just one modest-sized tax, and that effectively capped by central government, is something, I know from personal experience, many Americans find literally incredible.
In that specific and limited sense, therefore, my own answer to my rhetorical question is that, as citizens of an American city of Birmingham, with far more control over our own affairs, we’d be less concerned by the result of last week’s presidential election – whether or not we backed the winner – than, for instance, we had cause to be by that of last year’s General Election.
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