Mayors: Referendum question contains crucial inaccuracies

On May 3rd voters in Birmingham and nine other English cities will be asked to make the most important decision in over 100 years about how their city is governed. 

They will be asked the following question (the wording is the same for each referendum, although of course the name of the city in the opening line differs):

How would you like Birmingham City Council to be run?

By a Leader who is an elected councillor chosen by the other elected councillors.

This is how the Council is run now.


By a Mayor who is elected by voters.

This would be a change from how the Council is run now.

This wording is wrong in several places. Birmingham City Council is not run by a Leader, but by a Leader and Cabinet. The Leader is chosen by some of the other elected councillors, not all, as the wording indicates.

Under the mayoral system Birmingham City Council would not be run by a Mayor but by a Mayor and Executive. The Executive consists of elected councillors, chosen by the Mayor.

Thus the description of how the Council is run now is incorrect. The description of how the Council would be run in the future if you vote for Option 1 is incorrect. The description of how the council would be run in the future if you vote for Option 2 is also incorrect. (These same errors appear not just on Birmingham’s ballot papers, but also on those in the nine other cities holding referendums.)

Therefore, whichever of the two options the electorate chooses, that is not the outcome that they will get,

Does this matter? Of course it does. It matters because the wording of any legally binding referendum question should be factually, incontestably, correct, just as the wording of any law or statute should be correct. It matters because of the historic nature of the decision that voters throughout most of England’s largest cities are being asked to take. And it matters because these errors could influence the way in which people vote, to the detriment or benefit of BOTH the Yes and the No camps.

Especially so, given that much of the debate – in Birmingham and the other nine cities – has concentrated both on the amount of power that a directly elected mayor would have, as well as the transparency or otherwise of the current system. Thus the incorrect wording on the ballot paper could influence a voter to believe that under the current system the Leader has more power than is actually the case (stating as it does that the Council is run by just one person rather than a group of people). Equally, wrongly stating that the Council would henceforth be run by a Mayor, rather than a Mayor and Executive, might lead voters to believe that a Mayor would have more power and autonomy than would actually be the case.

Given that if voters choose to adopt the mayoral system, it will require an Act of Parliament to reverse the decision (and nobody should underestimate how difficult passing such legislation would be) it is imperative that the wording on the ballot paper be correct and not open to misinterpretation.

We have spoken with several legal experts about this wording and all share our concern. The Birmingham Press does not have deep pockets, but were that not the case then this website would have seriously considered launching legal action to get the wording corrected.

We suggest that the question should have read:

How would you like Birmingham City Council to be run?

By a Leader and Cabinet.


By a Mayor and Executive.

All other wording is superfluous and simply clouds the issue. Attempting to describe in an equitable and balanced way how the leadership structure of each option is determined only results in a lengthy, confusing question, with several sub-clauses.

But by trying yet again to meddle and coerce voters into their favoured outcome, the government has produced a question that not only contains factual inaccuracies, but is blatantly biased.

Consider the options; you can have a Leader who is CHOSEN by other councillors, or a Mayor who is VOTED for by us!

Just in case we haven’t noticed the bright new democratic world being offered, the ballot paper remarks, completely unnecessarily, that the second option would be a change. Why? In the context of a referendum and put before voters at the very moment that they are being asked to make their decision, this statement is anything but neutral.

Time and again during the mayoral referendum process, the government has shown that it does not trust the electorate to choose, so scared are they that we will make a choice that they don’t agree with. So it pressures us, cajoles us and attempts to fix the vote.