Why The Mayoral Referendum Matters

Steve Beauchampé takes a critical look at the ramifications of Birmingham electing a Mayor.

Birmingham Mayor debateI recall a magazine headline prior to the tightly contested 2000 US Presidential election: it read: ‘Bush and Gore – Too Close To Care’. The implication, of course, was that the two men’s policies were so similar that it mattered not which was elected. We now know better.

I was reminded of this headline recently when a friend likened Birmingham’s forthcoming mayoral referendum to, “moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic”. The implication being that not much would change should there be a Yes vote. But it most certainly will.

In fact, the Localism Act 2011, which forces Birmingham and ten other English cities into holding referendums, could result in the biggest change to how our city is governed in over 100 years. But while the concept of a figurehead elected by the voters every four years may initially sound attractive, an examination of the extent of the changes to how we would be governed under the mayoral system makes alarming reading.

The current system largely mirrors the national parliament at Westminster, with a leader elected from the largest party and the cabinet made up of elected councillors from either the ruling party or – as at present – the ruling coalition. Elections are staged three years out of every four, with one-third of council seats contested each time.

But if a simple majority of Birmingham voters choose to adopt the mayoral model on May 3rd (no minimum percentage turnout is required), then the present system will be replaced with an elected mayor and executive. This executive can number as few as three (the mayor and two councillors) but the mayor may appoint an unlimited number of special advisors to help devise and implement his policies (the London mayor currently has 24!). This is where much of the real power will lie, yet these special advisors are unelected, can serve for the entire mayoral term and can only be removed from office by the mayor.

Additionally, the Council’s multi-billion pound annual budget, which currently requires approval by 50%+1 of councillors, can henceforth be passed with only one-third support (so it would be approved even if 80 out of our 120 local councillors voted against it). Strategic policy decisions (such as cuts to public services, their privatisation or major infrastructure projects) will also require just one-third approval rather than the present 50%+1. As the mayor’s four-year term progresses, it is increasingly likely that many policies will not have featured in any mayoral manifesto and thus will not have been put before the public.

The distinct lack of checks, restraints and limitations by which to hold the mayor accountable continues; they cannot be forced from office by a vote of no confidence by councillors or removed via a recall system (despite the fact that the government is proposing one for MPs). In fact the Localism Act ensures that it will be almost impossible to dismiss a mayor between elections.

Further mocking the democratic process, the government have refused even to announce what the mayor’s full powers and policy remit will be until after any mayoral referendum has taken place! So Birmingham’s electorate are being asked to make an informed decision about an office whose scope and powers have yet to be determined!

But given that the Localism Act authorises the Secretary of State for Local Government and Communities to transfer almost any public service to the control of an elected mayor, it’s safe to assume that in time mayoral powers will only increase.

In stark contrast, councillors will be further marginalised and their expertise wasted. Their rôle has already been substantially reduced by the Local Government Act 2000, which removed the committee system that gave them real input into policy making. In future they will be unable to exert any meaningful influence over mayoral policy and will, to all intents and purposes, be powerless to affect the big strategic decisions on which council services often depend. They will be reduced to little more than attending to highly localised issues on behalf of constituents and commenting on mayoral policy via essentially toothless (and often retrospective) Overview and Scrutiny Committees.

Yet unlike in Stoke-on-Trent, where the electorate terminated their failed mayoral experiment by holding a second referendum, the government is not permitting Birmingham that option. Instead, abandoning the mayoral route will require an Act of Parliament and the prospect of Westminster allowing the time to pass such legislation (or caring enough to support it) is as good as zero.

If it were proposed to introduce such sweeping changes at Westminster there would be uproar. If we replaced the Prime Minister with a President, lowered the bar for budget approval and the passing of legislation from 50% to one-third, reduced the size and importance of the Cabinet, and devolved policy making and implementation from Ministers to presidential appointees, the nation would rise in anger at such an assault on democracy.

So why should we accept it in Birmingham?