Exactly what part of the word ‘No’ doesn’t George Osborne understand, asks Steve Beauchampé.
In a referendum held three just years ago the voters of Birmingham overwhelmingly rejected Government calls for the city to be run by an elected mayor. They were not alone; voters in Coventry as well as those in seven other English cities did likewise, with only Bristol’s voters supporting the concept. The people had spoken, here was democracy in action.
But we had voted the wrong way. Undeterred by the scale of his Government’s defeat, Chancellor George Osborne confirmed last Thursday that plans to devolve powers from Westminster to the Combined (local) Authorities currently forming in England’s largest conurbations, including the West Midlands, would be conditional upon their agreeing to the imposition of a regional mayor (sometimes termed a metro mayor).
Osborne, clearly irritated by those 2012 defeats, stated: “No half measures this time… there will be a single point of accountability… someone who carries the can.” adding: “We will transfer major powers only to those cities who choose to have a directly elected metro-wide mayor.” He emphasised that these mayors would have substantial powers, in charge of upwards of £2bn of public expenditure covering such areas as transport, housing, healthcare, learning and skills, and with the likelihood of being granted additional powers in the future.
In 2012 this website campaigned against Birmingham being run by an elected mayor (the city’s electorate had also voted against a similar proposal in 2004). Although the regional mayoral posts are larger in geographical scope from those proposed in 2012, they are in essence a more powerful version. As in the 2012 proposals, regional mayors would not take over powers from individual local authorities, only ones newly devolved from Whitehall.
However, again as in 2012, the specifics of these powers will only be announced once the post has being created, although we can be certain that they will place an enormous amount of political and fiscal control in one person’s hands. In the Greater Birmingham region (as it is being termed) this will almost inevitably mean someone male, pale and stale, a solitary decision maker who cannot help but be unrepresentative of the diverse and multi-cultural population of a conurbation of almost three million people. A figure lacking political legitimacy and credibility from the outset, but one likely to face considerable pressure from powerful business leaders and skilled lobby groups keen that their voices will be heard.
Although the mayoral policy was included in the Conservative’s recent election manifesto, the Government is acting as if the referenda of 2012 had never happened. To wilfully ignore the outcome of these polls is not just to be contemptuous of the electorate, but is an affront, nay even an outright assault, on democracy. Osborne’s claim that: “I will not impose a mayor on anyone, nor will I settle for less”, is purposely designed to make councils feel bereft of choice. Warned that they risk missing out on devolved powers and be consigned to the local authority slow lane to the detriment of their economies, workforce and the wider population, the Combined Authorities are being bullied and blackmailed.
In the West Midlands, a nascent combined authority already exists, involving Birmingham, Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall and Wolverhampton, but with Solihull and Coventry still to be persuaded. The evolutionary process has been slow and at times tortuous, the enthusiasm of Birmingham Council leader Sir Albert Bore seemingly not matched even by his Black Country counterparts. These leaders, and even Sir Albert, who himself campaigned for a pro-mayoral vote in 2012, have repeatedly stressed that the regional mayoral route was not on their agenda, at least in the short term, but they might now feel compelled to accept Osborne’s bribe.
Yet when people in Birmingham and Coventry campaigned and voted in the 2012 referendum they did so in the belief that their decision was binding and would be respected as the democratic decree and will of the electorate. Since when there has been no groundswell of opinion in favour of an elected mayor (city-wide or regional), no ongoing campaign for a further referendum.
So on what basis does the Government seek to overturn the referendum result, traducing the democratic process and reinforcing the widely held view that Whitehall decides and dictates to the rest of Britain? A question made even more pertinent given that Osborne’s party has little more of a mandate in this region following the recent General Election than it does in Scotland.
It would be easy to acquiesce, however reluctantly, to the Government’s demands and create a structure of governance that places enormous power and patronage in the hands of a single individual, for fear of missing out on the (very) long overdue devolution of powers from a vastly over-centralised state. Already, business organisations and predictable voices within the local media are calling for just such a climbdown.
But democracy trumps all, so that when accepting the offer involves flouting a democratic decision taken by a large percentage of the Combined Authorities’ electorate, and when the rest of that electorate have never been offered a say in the first place, the answer has to be ‘No’, whatever the ramifications.
And if George Osborne continues to withhold from this region powers that he is willing to grant to other parts of the country, then he should prepare his party for a right shellacking at West Midlands’ ballot boxes for some time to come.