Followers on Twitter will know we’ve been trying to source a sound, factual and unbiased briefing [NB since writing this blog, we have produced our own] on likely implications of switching to an elected mayor as local authority leader. This came about because in the media and social media debates and at the two events I’ve been to, the lack of factual information available was really worrying. At neither mayoral debate were printed factual briefings being distributed; and neither started with a presentation of the facts, but went straight to ‘for’ and ‘against’ campaigners – a classic case of ‘heat but no light’.
So even for the people who turn up to events, there is not enough information. For those who don’t – the vast majority of those who will vote – there are even fewer facts available on which to make a decision, unless they take time to really look.
As Daz Wright commented on the Birmingham Press blog: “Unfortunately quite a bit of this debate is being held on the basis that many commentators are ignorant of how the current system works, let alone any future one.” Absolutely. I’m not pretending to be the most well-versed in political systems myself, but in fact that’s almost the point.
There are two issues here. One is that not enough of the KNOWN facts about the (comparative) implications of elected mayors are being disseminated, so that even relatively politically active voters will be ill-informed.
The second – a more well-trodden point – is that powers and funding won’t be negotiated until mayors have been elected; so many important things can’t be known until we have voted both in the referendum and then for specific candidates. There is something distastefully macho about the ‘yes’ camp’s criticism of those who find this alarming, or want to question it, as sissies afraid of change. Speaking personally this macho posturing is more alarming than the lack of foreknowledge itself.
The biggest lack of clarity is around how decision-making within the city will differ from what happens now. Basic fact: the mayor will have the powers that currently reside with the council executive (and any extra powers granted by Parliament will reside with them too) apart from the budget and annual plans of key services, which are decided on by full council. I don’t believe this fact is sufficiently understood. Beyond this – how can we understand in any detail whether the mayoral system strips any more power from councillors than was already stripped away in the move from committee structure to Cabinet? The Yes camp says it doesn’t, the No camp says it does. Fancy that. Can we have some real detail and analysis please? And scrutiny arrangements – structurally the same I think, but any power-play changes to consider?
And then – scientific analysis of the comparative effectiveness and corruptibility of powers residing with a single individual vs a group appointed by that individual?
And whether there are ways of increasing local democracy, accountability and clout that don’t have the disadvantages of putting more power, with few recall options, in the hands of an individual for four years?
And whether past experience demonstrates that extra powers really can be effectively ‘taken’ as Gisela Stuart persuasively argues, or whether city deals will depend on political colour and personality?
Anything on implications for diversity (gender, background, race) of elected representatives?
Less crucially, perhaps, unbiased evidence on comparative system costs?
And some clarity on powers to recall elected mayors or get rid of the mayoral structure, in comparison to the recall and change powers we have over our current system?
With a bit more proper information, most of us can begin to understand the trade-offs we’re looking at between two non-ideal systems, or to think about – forgive me – a third way we can lobby for, to tweak the results of either a yes or a no vote. But given even the referendum ballot paper wording itself is biased, an evidence based approach is obviously going to be elusive – specially before people go to vote on May 3rd.
In my brief google-search for objective briefings, I found a few. Wikipedia, bless it, proved useful, with pages on both elected mayors and on the current ‘leader and cabinet’ model. Voscur’s was brief but pleasantly factual. The BBC College of Journalism page on the subject is also useful. Please comment below if you find better sources.
Yes or No campaign rhetoric masquerading as factual briefings are more common – but you can find your own versions of those.
I can’t vouch for the impartiality of the above briefings but at least they are a good start. Can I urge people to make sure particularly their less politically minded friends, family and colleagues have access to these as well as to the yes and no camp rhetoric?
Localise WM has also been organising and reporting on meetings with those already declaring themselves interested in standing for Mayor in Birmingham, to find out more about their proposals for a strong, equitable and sustainable local economy. Click here for report of our meeting with Gisela Stuart ; notes from meetings with Sion Simon and Mirza Ahmad to follow shortly. We’re waiting to hear back from Liam Byrne…