According to naysayers, the ‘No’ vote had always been on the cards. In a ‘consultative ballot’ held in 2001, the city’s electorate were quizzed over three types of governance: only 40% wanting an ‘elected mayor and cabinet’; another 13% wanting the now-defunct ‘elected mayor and council manager’ option; 46.4% backed the existing leader and cabinet system.
At the time, the city’s councillors felt this indicated little appetite for change and decided to keep things as they were – and so triggered a decade’s worth of accusations that they had stifled what had been an overall majority in favour of a mayor of some kind.
A mini-history lesson, perhaps, but an important one because this issue had long dogged Birmingham’s politics and badly needed a democratic, once-and-for-all resolution. The mayoral referendum result has now confirmed the people’s preference – 58% said ‘No’ – and so elected councillors will continue to select the city’s leader behind closed doors.
For some who wanted elected mayors, this means Birmingham, England’s biggest council, might struggle to be treated as the nation’s second city, trailing behind other cities whose elected mayors have the mandate to bang on Downing Street doors over local issues.
They also say that a directly-elected leader who everyone recognised would have improved democracy, because voters would have known who was responsible for the quality of services and therefore who to vote for every four years.
But opponents to elected mayors always worried about power-crazy candidates getting the job, warning this could be to the detriment of democracy.
In fairness, Birmingham’s traditional council leader for the last eight years has not done a bad job. Councillor Mike Whitby – who led the Tory-Lib Dem coalition until May 3 – presided over the development of New Street Station, Metro extension plans, a brand new £189 million library and other regeneration projects.
The problem is that in 2012, Birmingham requires far more than a smart city centre. It desperately needs better schools, thousands of new homes, fairer economic integration for a diverse population and tens of thousands of new jobs.
Birmingham’s Labour leader Sir Albert Bore had been in favour of an elected mayor to help attract inward investors from across the globe to help pay for all this. And so although his party has regained power, you might think he has a little egg on his face over the ‘no’ vote.
Not a bit of it, according to Sir Albert himself. He’s led the council and attracted huge European grants for regeneration projects before – and now relishes having a similar challenge again, albeit with hoped-for investment this time from the Far East.
With a new, 20-strong majority in Birmingham, Sir Albert will quickly forget about the elected mayor debacle. Let’s hope everyone else also puts it to one side. After been haunted by a dodgy ‘consultative ballot’ for 11 years, the city’s movers and shakers need to learn how to work better with the political system they’ve got.
Steve Dyson is a former editor of the Birmingham Mail, where he campaigned for a mayoral referendum to ‘Let the People Decide’. He is now a media consultant, trainer and journalist. More details at www.dysonmedia.co.uk
- Birmingham rejects elected mayor (bbc.co.uk)
- Birmingham votes Labour and no to an elected Mayor (sion-simon.org.uk)