OK, so we – and all other places except Bristol – voted not to switch to an elected mayor. According to some Yes campaigners – whether through naivety or pique is I’m not sure – we will never have another chance to change.
Even leaving aside the fact that governments like to fiddle with local governance on a fairly regular basis and that political change does happen within cities, I just don’t quite get this. If we had voted for an elected mayor, we would have an elected mayor whom wouldn’t be able to abolish without an Act of Parliament, and we might well get stuck into a similar Boris/Ken/Boris/Ken (or should that be Boris/Boris) rut as London – the novelty would wear off. Yes, there would have been positives, of course, but – last chance to change anything? Almost more the opposite. Having said no, we have more options.
While it looks likely to have had some benefits, the model we were offered was fundamentally flawed, and so was the way in which it was pushed upon us. With fairly typical arrogance, the Government never felt the need to give voters much clue as to what powers might be achievable, and never even bothered to provide information on the implications of the different systems where ordinary voters could find it (and in Birmingham neither did the council nor the campaigns). Even the day before the referendum, there was nothing on CLG’s website that told you how the system would be different under a mayor – leaving people to assume that the most alarmist ‘dictator’ version of events could be entirely true.
Meanwhile in fairly desperate economic times, the nod-wink offer of extra powers if we complied exactly with the Government’s plans for us, and never mind that this locked us out of BOTH the two other systems on offer let alone of negotiating change on our own terms – sounded to local people like blackmail; like offering an impoverished household a doorstep loan – they’ll explain the interest rates when you’ve signed on the dotted line, thank you.
As Chris Game presciently hinted in the Birmingham Post a few days ago, the Coalition could not have made it more compelling for the city’s population to vote ‘no’ if they had tried.
Now the referendum is behind us. Disappointed ‘Yes’ campaigners will, I’m sure, still want to see change. All the ‘No’ campaigners I know are deeply unhappy with the status quo and want to see change (just not government-bullied, ill-thought-through, power-concentrating change.) So would it not be better, rather than lamenting that we didn’t accept what was on offer with blind faith, to take the initiative, capitalise on the passion of people on both sides and begin dialogue on progressive politics for our area on our terms – and with better informed populations taking the decision?
For one thing, the city is still capable of re-running a referendum on elected mayors. This would be vastly improved by making more information available to voters on what they are voting for (or against). But better, we can investigate the potential for strategic collaboration – mayoral or otherwise – across local authority boundaries, leaving local authorities’ democracies intact, and push for a conurbation-sized city deal. Greater Manchester offers us one model. We can also press for urban parish or community councils. We can investigate the potential for citizen-led economic development programmes such as are successful in creating socially beneficial economies many parts of Canada and America, to balance the economically centralist drivers of LEPs. We should certainly discuss how local governance can get the best balance between diverse and decentralised representative democracy, efficient decision-making, transparency and resilience to vested interests. There may well be new Birmingham councillors keen to see change and willing to talk about new ideas.
One last point – if there had been a Yes vote, I would have written something very similar. Just as voting No is not a victory against Government bullying because change is still needed, Mayors would never have been a panacea. Whatever the outcome and however you feel about it, the referendum was only ever another beginning of another dialogue.