The best argument for an elected mayor will come from the people

by Tom Keeley

On the day, at the weekend, that “yes to Brum mayor” launched its campaign for next year’s referendum, Birmingham Edgbaston CLP held its annual community conference.  While not at the campaign launch, I find hard to imagine that the assembled activists and politicians could have made a more compelling argument for an elected mayor than that made through the stories that residents gathered at the community conference told.

Time after time, residents expressed concern over the level of service the council provides. From bin bags to education and from rodents to health, residents felt that the performance of the council was unacceptable. All present could remember a time when the council had not responded to their needs; whether during a council tax enquiry or when trying to secure education for a disabled child or when seeking social care for an elderly relative. Most concerning was not that these problems exist, but that these are the same problems their parents had to contend with. Many admitted that they had stopped even trying to sort problems because dealing with the council was futile endeavour. “The lights are on in the council house, but no one is home”, commented one resident.

There was also a feeling in the room that as a city Birmingham had lost its way.  While other cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester have confidently claimed their place in twenty first century Britain, Birmingham has so far failed. It has failed to address the needs and harness the power of a young, diverse and changing population. It has failed to respond to a changing industrial reality. It has failed to admit that the city we now live in is deeply divided. Rather, it has drifted from year to year led by a council which lives from budget to budget.

Notwithstanding their disappointment, the number of residents present at the community conference is testament to the fact that the people of Birmingham are still willing to give politics a chance. But they need a politics that is accountable to them. Residents felt it unbelievable that the “leader” of Birmingham was selected through internal Conservative party dealings (and that a Labour leader of the council would be selected in the same way).  Residents bemoaned the fact that the leader could not in any meaningful sense be held accountable for his performance. “I would have sacked him long ago if I had the chance”, said one lifelong Birmingham resident.

The position of the elected mayor has the potential to bring vision and accountability to the politics of Birmingham. I am not foolish enough to think that one of the largest councils in Europe would suddenly change direction with an elected mayor; its failings go much deeper than that. But, having a person with whom the buck stops, who is accountable, who must consult in order to understand rather than to pander and who can be fired by the electorate for not seeing through election promises, would add much needed impetuous.  For too long Birmingham has lived with a Kafkaesque council and mediocre leadership.  This is an important election for Birmingham and a great opportunity for politics.

Tom Keeley is an activist in Birmingham Edgbaston CLP.

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3 Responses to “The best argument for an elected mayor will come from the people”

  1. swatantra says:

    I’m in favour of elected Mayors, the more recognisable to the public the better.
    Too many of our Council Leaders are nobodies and anonymous and difficult to get hold of.

  2. JK says:

    Surely local government is about willingness to negotiate compromise and get along with your neighbours, despite how annoying they are! This is what local democracy should be about. The notion of a directly elected mayor is based on a belief that local democracy is too time consuming, has too much red tape and is too bureaucratic. Is claims that one strong leader modelled on a heroic messiah can resolve the complex and difficult problems in our cities. High visibility doesn’t necessarily mean better services, fairness or democracy.

    At best it will make little difference and at worse could make a whole load of problems much worse.

    Elected mayors do very little to deal with the massive power and resource imbalances between Westminster and Whitehall. Despite Pickles claims of the Tories being the party of localism; the latest wheeze is directed localism. Basically it is more of the same. Central government telling localities what to do and how to do it. Neither Labour or the coalition will deal with this imbalance.

    In a diverse city, such as Birmingham, it will be hard for one person to be able to broker shared visions, values and necessary compromises. Edgbaston is not Erdington, both places have different stories, experiences and expectations. That means having people on the ground, active councillors who know their patch and can work with many different constituencies.

    Sure, a directly elected mayor might well create media interest but that will put pressure on political parties to select media acceptable candidates. Do we want a beauty contest or people who care about the city and its people.

    Directly elected mayors will increase the rise of the celebrity candidate. In Birmingham would we really want someone like Carl Chinn to run the city?

  3. AmberStar says:

    Electing figureheads does not improve anything. They are a safety valve; somebody visible who can be voted out, if people aren’t happy. Voting them out doesn’t improve anything it just makes angry people feel a little less angry until the next ‘guy’ lets them down too.

    Meanwhile, the disfunctional councillors carry on in the background. Continuing to be re-elected by 2 men & a dog because voters don’t turn out for council elections. The mayor will take care of all that… so why bother voting in the council elections?

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