Mayors – New Labour/Con Trick

Elected Mayors – a New Labour/Cameron fix, with precious little support from Birmingham councillors, reckons Steve Beauchampé

Birmingham City Council House

Birmingham City Council House

As the mayoral referendum approaches, it has become increasingly apparent that support for an elected mayor amongst Birmingham’s political community is concentrated mainly within what might be termed the New Labour vanguard, in particular Siôn Simon, Liam Byrne and Gisela Stuart (one Labour activist remarked recently that around two-thirds of the party’s councillors supported a ‘No’ vote). Conservative Councillors have been almost mute on the subject (we have been able to identify no more than a handful of mayoral supporters amongst their number) while the Liberal Democrats appear to be 100% opposed. None of this necessarily reflects levels of support amongst the wider public, which we would certainly expect to be higher, but it does mimic the situation amongst the political parties in most of the other nine English cities staging mayoral referendums on May 3rd.

Another group that has been vocal in supporting directly elected mayors are leaders of the city’s business community, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the lobbying group, Birmingham Forward.

So why does a David Cameron-led initiative garner such enthusiastic support from amongst both former Blairites and the corporate sector? These alliances are perhaps not unsurprising; Blair became an advocate of mayors after seeing how they operated in North America (which is nothing at all like they would in Birmingham), and the superficial veneer of accountability and lazy interpretation of democracy they bring fitted perfectly with New Labour’s empty political rhetoric. Ditto David Cameron, who is, of course, an admirer and student of Blair, as he is of Thatcherism. But there is a political sleight of hand at play: under Cameron, the Conservatives have been busy dismantling what remains of local government, the notion that they will suddenly devolve any meaningful powers to it is simply not credible.

Birmingham’s business leaders (many of whom live outside of the city boundary) have another agenda altogether.

Birmingham City Council is both the largest employer in the city and spends more money (£3.65bn) than any one else. A survey published in February 2010 (Birmingham Total Place) reported that public spending in Birmingham (2008/9) amounted to £7.495bn, with over half of that coming both directly and indirectly from central government, including via agencies. Siôn Simon recently produced a hopelessly optimistic wish list suggesting that the government should transfer many, if not all, of the functions accounted for by this expenditure to the office of mayor.

No chance of course, but even if central government gave directly elected mayors a mere fraction of these powers and budgets, added to the council’s existing budget, that’s still a lot of contracts for the private sector to compete and lobby for. Given that both Siôn Simon and Liam Byrne have pledged to use their mayoral tenure to create “jobs, jobs, jobs” (Byrne) or “30,000 jobs” (Simon), attracting inward investment, and wooing those large multi-nationals who might provide it, will also need to be high on their agendas.

Before a recent Birmingham Forward debate entitled ‘How can a mayor engage with business? a man who described himself as being ‘in property’ told me that he wanted to see a mayor because Birmingham needed someone at the top who could: “get things done quickly.”

And herein lies the crux of the problem. The event was populated with ‘professionals’ from the worlds of public relations, consultancy, financial and legal services, land and property development. All want a slice of something; and all want that ‘something’ to be done for them, by a mayor. (So how does that square with free markets and small government?) This includes selling Birmingham overseas and being a ‘big hitter’ at Westminster (though the so far announced crop of mayoral wannabees perhaps resemble less Kevin Pietersen, more Geoff Boycott). There’s no apparent reason why a mayor would do such a job better than a council leader (look at Manchester!), but for the business community electing a mayor means that there is only one person to be persuaded rather than a council cabinet (worse still, a coalition cabinet), committee system or indeed a majority of Birmingham’s 120 directly-elected councillors, each of whom is primarily accountable to their own communities.

And easier still to get the mayor on side if you can lobby him at leisure during business breakfasts, dinners, openings, civic functions etc, to which only the select few get invited, and sometimes often. The mayor may come and give a speech at your local school or community centre, they may shake your hand, say hello, kiss your baby, but the true paths to mayoral influence will rarely be found by the ordinary voter.

Indeed, a quick trawl around the Internet reveals that political lobbying could become one of Birmingham’s fastest growth industries under a mayoral system. One company offers to use its knowledge and influence in: ‘Providing a bespoke service to international and national clients interested in negotiating the best terms available from both UK Government and Local Government …Our advocacy service includes influencing, or advising those who wish to influence…regional or local government or other public bodies on any relevant manner.” That same consultancy has also established a website that has been at the forefront of calls for a ‘Yes’ vote.

Considering all of the above, for some reason the words Hunt, Sky, Jeremy and a couple of letter ‘B’s come to mind. Now, I really must go and watch some old episodes of The Thick Of It.