Birmingham referendum

Other than the niggling feeling that elections were coming up and worrying about Liam Burns throwing his hat into the ring for Labour candidate before the referendum has been decided, the only opinions I have on directly elected mayors is based on my experiences in London. Which are post-mayor, and I’ve become more interested in incumbents and candidates than whether an elected mayor is a good thing. I feel myself leaning to approving of them in London as an over arching figure over the many boroughs but there are many aspects I’ve come to hate about the position and the assembly (ignoring assembly members votes and assembly members walking out over petty name calling).

Being not in Birmingham that often lately, both campaigns have passed me by, as they have most other voters as a BBC WM poll showed 59% of people were unaware of the referendum, and even cursory searching found little especially for the No camp. Today’s Guardian has an article critiquing the assumption that elected mayors are a given, and other than the reminder of the farce occurring in Doncaster and pitiful representation of women and minority groups on candidate lists thankfully linked me to the No campaign for Birmingham.

Having just come out from student Union elections with pretty badly designed websites, I am pretty appalled at the quality of the No campaign’s one. It reminds me of a website I used to find out more about a 40 year old bicycle frame, other than the aesthetics the navigation is faff and not at all appealing. However, you can’t help but notice the no ‘manifesto’ has been stretched to 10 points and most of it is waffle and some perplexing to read (I’ll come back to these points). To contrast this is a much nicer looking on, which apologies to Alex (but congratulations on winning) is much nicer and easier to navigate student union website.
The Yes group have a nicer website and clicking to their “why” section you are greeted by eight points of inconsequential platitudes that don’t really stress why at all you should vote yes. They have a facebook group with a 140 likes and some folk on twitter reacting to comments, but so far neither group appear to be mounting any attempt at courting voters one way of the other. The Yes group appear confident of their success that they now moving on to husting-esque style debates to decide what a mayor should be like rather than whether one should be present in Birmingham.

Reasons to vote Yes: (Italics them)

Yes to Democracy: You can directly elect your leader and if they fail, you can get rid of them at the next election.
Currently leaders of the council are selected by councillors who are voted in and who require broad support from their peers, and can be got rid of.

Yes to visibility:You will know who your mayor is and the rest of the world will too.
You should know who your councillors and leaders are, an elected mayor for the sake of a figurehead is weird.

Yes to change: Birmingham is struggling and a leader with a genuine mandate can drive positive change.
Annoyingly neither Yes or No website stated what voting system will be used should the referendum pass but I guess it’ll be the supplementary vote which while not FPTP isn’t true PR. A genuine mandate, dear lord, I wish that was the case, but a November election for a mayor would probably have a very low turn out (even London mayoral and assembly elections have less than 50% turnout, essentially making the Mayor having barely 20% of votes) and to imply someone would have a genuine mandate when the majority of people would have voted for them or not voted at all is almost certainly not got going to happen.

Yes to transparency: You’ll be able to see how decisions are made and who makes them.
No change here really.

Yes to local decisions: A mayor can make sure decisions are made closer to you and your community.
As opposed to councillors who will have a much lower ratio of voters to representatives and a slightly greater chance of being from a political party you approve of?

Yes to less beauracracy:A whole layer of unaccountable government bureaucracy can be removed by combining the Leader of the council and the Chief Executive.
Fair enough, we’ve got point to make half way through.

Yes to Birmingham: The mayor can celebrate our successes and bring people together to solve problems by being a recognisable leader.
Again, suggesting a mayor for the city to rally around as a figurehead, more a critique of current situation.

Yes to success: A directly elected mayor can help Birmingham fulfil it’s potential. Nearly every major city in the world has a directly elected mayor. Birmingham deserves one too.
How this will happen is not at all clear to me.

So voting Yes seems to be “Let’s have one person we can call our own and be a vocal, in the media spokesman for Birmingham”, experience of London’s cult of personalities really does not make me desire this.

Now the No arguments (linked to because why more text)

One person cannot listen to a million
This is a pretty good point, in terms of representation mayors are pretty poor, as mentioned above they will be elected on very low numbers of support
It will cost more in hard times 
I hate critques of the cost referenda and elections as I tend to think more of them the better, and the mayoral salary might be obscene or not, but chief execs are often paid a lot to be “competitive”, I believe running for mayor for the salary is a bad way to go so feel this probably wont be the case.
It is not within the british tradition
Uggghhhhhhhhh what? 
It leads to corruption
Ugggghhhhhhh what?
It takes attention off important issues and concentrates on personalities
Big fear of this, and with the likes of Liam Burns I would really fear the spread of personality contests or small “big statement” parties crowding in like Doncaster.
Birmingham’s villages will be ignored with concentration on the City Centre
Hard to see how this would be different than councils.
The mayor is likely to spend a lot of time travelling outside Birmingham and less time in Birmingham
Oh councils are famous for their needless excursions here and there but the reinforcement of the mayor as celebrity spokesman rather than legislator is valid.
The pro campaign cannot explain how it will improve things
Very true.
People normally vote against it and Stoke got rid of one
Not a reason, mentioned Doncaster but doesn’t explain the gerrymandering and collapse of local government there since the English Democrat came to power.
Birmingham’s successes in the past came without a directly elected Mayor
This section literally makes no sense and could be used as a good argument for Birmingham removing the right to vote from most of the electorate, “Birmingham was good back in the day, why change anything”.

Overall I feel that they at least put forward some arguments against it although gloss over the major issues with elected mayors and elsewhere and how it will probably not lead to better representation within Birmingham

Its hard to see how an elected mayor could have stopped or mitigated the economic problems undergone and continuing within Birmingham, and on their arguments I feel the No vote come out in front. However, most people wont be able to get to them and would be excused of thinking they stumbled into a late 90s site.

As I mentioned above the Yes have a minor online presence and seem to be excusing their lack of concise reasons to the small campaign, and the total lack of No presence is worrying that it will be a bit of Yes-wash for people seeking more information. Furthermore there is a real risk of most people just knowing what the arguments are.

I have a real fear that a low turn out referendum will lead to a cycle of low majority leaders who will be vacuous waste of space and no one seems to be bothered to try and campaign on way of the other. While I’m veering very much to voting against it, I am still very much within the undecided camp but the Yes group are going to need to actually try some convincing… And for the love of god make the websites nicer and be more audacious than £10k campaigns, the Yes campaign seem to think that they can lead to a less partisan politic in Birmingham but living in London makes this claim laughable.

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4 Responses to Birmingham referendum

  1. Fish says:

    I’m confused at what the point of a Birmingham mayor is really. Maybe some of the supporters of this think they’ll be getting a Boris Johnson-type figure who will be able to fix their public transport, sack the head of the police when they fail to deal with riots etc. Except that given that Birmingham City Council is just part of the West Midlands, the areas that these services cover, they’re not going to be able to do anything the council can’t do already.

    Maybe what’s needed is a “West Midlands Authority” which has more powers like the GLA has and is led by an elected mayor? Except you would never get the folks in the Black Country to have anything to do with Birmingham…

    TBH my opinion on all this is a bit irrelevant really, even if I was living in my parents’ house that’s in Sandwell!

    • Roo says:

      I definitely agree that I think an elected mayor works in London because big area over many councils, but birmingham is a huge council (largest in eu I think), and its hard to see what the point other than a spokesman!

    • Bob says:

      It is not true that you wouldn’t get Black Country people to vote for a Regional Authority. We had one until Thatcher abolished it because of a fit of pique over Ken Livingstone in London. A regional tier which co-ordinated issues around transport, regeneration investment, planning etc makes absolute sense. A Mayor for Birmingham makes no sense whatsoever. In May Birmingham will vote overwhelmingly for a Labour controlled Council. 6 months later the City could elect a Tory Mayor. What a fine mess that would turn out to be.

      Incidentally, the City Mayor will have no chance of doing anything about policing and crime. There is to be an elected police commissioner to deal with that.

  2. lauriey says:

    I think some in the “Yes” camp are hoping that an elected mayor might have more of a voice in Westminister and perhaps be able to push for greater localisation. Which would be incredibly unlikely given that we have a Tory government, but maybe if there was a massive turnout and a massive majority then that’d be interesting.. but alas voter turnout for council elections is consistently low, and it seems unlikely Brummies will get too interested about this.

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