Mayors: Blind Faith

Dave Woodhall continues the mayoral debate.

Birmingham West MidlandsIf you’re a regular Press reader you might be forgiven for thinking that the last thing we need is another feature about why Birmingham shouldn’t have an elected mayor. Others, most notably Steve Beauchampé, have covered this story in detail and with great reasoning. However, there is a welter of press (small ‘p’) coverage in favour of the concept, so the least we can do is continue to provide an alternative viewpoint.

I’ve said before that the mainstream local media seem to have an agenda to regard an elected mayor as an inevitability. There are regular references to candidates for the post – regardless of the fact that it doesn’t yet exist. Friday evening’s Midlands Today saw Nick Owen refer to “the candidates,” before hastily adding “if the election takes place” as an aside. This was during a story about how local residents are unaware of the forthcoming referendum – in a recent BBC poll of 500 people, 59% had no idea that it’s taking place. This in itself is a worry, not least because the less people who vote, the greater the chance of a comparatively small but well-organised group being able to influence the result. And I would guess that those in favour are more likely to vote on the subject than those who are against.

Indeed, the lacklustre nature of the ‘no’ campaign has been disappointing. Their major supporters been lower-key and their website, is, quite frankly, amateurish. In fact, Googling ‘Birmingham elected mayor’ gives on top of the first page with its ‘No’ counterpart nowhere in sight. Again, though, this is no surprise. Many of Birmingham’s leading political figures support the idea of an elected mayor because they fancy the job for themselves; witness council leader Mike Whitby’s Damascene conversion from describing the role as that of an “elected dictator” two years ago, to declaring his intention to stand for the potential Tory nomination last February. Looking at the glossy ‘Yes’ site and reading of their upcoming events and organisation it’s obvious that a lot of money is being spent here, and it’s difficult not to conclude that one of the reasons is because a lot more money could be made should the result go in their favour.

My own view on the subject has changed from marginally supportive to resolutely against, and mostly because of one point that was raised in Steve Beauchampé’s article Elected Mayors: A Constitutional Farce.

The mayor’s powers will not be decided until after the successful candidate is elected. The possibilities for political interference are therefore obvious. A mayor acceptable to the government could easily be granted far greater powers than a Labour mayor or an independent with no need to keep Party machinery happy by toeing an approved line. Mayor Whitby could end up with a budget significantly in excess of the current annual city figure of £3.5 billion, and covering all areas from housing and welfare, to transport and regeneration. A less favourable figure, and we all know which local historian sends shivers of apprehension running down the spines of both Conservative Campaign Headquarters and their Labour counterparts, might find himself totally isolated and with much less power than the current chief executive holds.

There are many other reasons why Birmingham shouldn’t have an elected mayor, and I hope these will be given a proper airing over the next few weeks. The fact that we don’t know what we would be voting for, and that the proposed system has such blatant potential for corruption, is sufficient for me.