Guest post by Dr Mirza Ahmad: Current mayoral candidates represent Birmingham’s past

Mirza Ahmad

Dr Mirza Ahmad was until last year Corporate Director of Governance at Birmingham City Council following an 11-year career with the authority. He now works as barrister at St Philips Chambers in the city.


Let me make it clear for the record: I have supported the principle of having a strong directly elected mayor for major cities of Britain since I visited the USA on a study tour, with other top local government officials, in search of the “enabling council” in the early 1990’s.

Working within a local authority from 2000 to 2011, whose elected members have been hostile to elected mayors has, of course, prevented me from making such a positive public statement before. Those close to me, though, have known for a long time my private views and support for a directly elected mayor for Birmingham.

The strongest argument for a directly elected mayor is the direct electoral mandate that such person will command for representing the whole of the city – not just the views of a narrow political party, as currently happens with existing politicians.

I do, therefore, hope that Birmingham’s electorate will in May give a resounding “yes” for a directly elected mayor and give a bloody nose to the “nay sayers” who prefer their status quo positions.

The young people – who are undoubtedly the city’s future – are bound to be positive about this potential change in city governance and will, I am sure, embrace the excitement that such a vote will bring to the city and the region.

Better city governance and better city leadership will not only become possible, but become a reality with an elected mayor who will be able to capture the hearts and minds of the people. The strategic possibilities will be great and it will be a truly historic vote for Birmingham.

In the right hands, a directly elected mayor can bring people and best interests from all sides and persuasions around the decision-making table for best effect – regardless of political labels – and provide authentic leadership to a city and transform the city region.

An elected mayor is also more likely to build trust and connect with the people and communities as s/he will come to symbolise the hopes and futures of a million residents of Birmingham. Great city leadership will, of course, require him/her to exercise great civic responsibility and s/he will also need to exercise great diplomacy, humility and live a passion for excellence. It is, therefore, not a job for the faint hearted.

One person representing the legitimate hopes, expectations and ambitions of a million Birmingham residents can never be matched by the current position, which involves just over 50 councillors colluding together behind closed doors to appoint one of their political group leaders as the leader of the council. In reality, the current council leaders would of course have been appointed by fewer than 50 councillors from within one of the ruling political parties, based on an electoral turnout of less than 30% in a ward.

30% is hardly a sign of legitimacy to represent a million residents and, besides, such a person still only represents, in reality, his/her own views and the views of his/her political party – not the whole of Birmingham. This is an example of potentially mediocre majority decision making behind closed doors. Power by the few, for the few and it is hardly surprising that many people do not know the name of the current leader of the council.

The monthly city council meetings also show how disconnected and disinterested the vast majority of Birmingham people are with the current city council business and the current city leaders. In the real world, such meetings have little or no relevance to real people outside the Council House.

Regrettably, as for the currently declared runners for the elected mayor, they represent, for me and many others (in particular, the youth), the past, their political parties and what is wrong, now, in terms of city governance and city leadership. The current players do not represent the future or what could be possible for Birmingham if it has a directly elected mayor.

A number of current runners also lack the charisma, imagination and drive to turn Birmingham into a truly world class city that leads other cities, instead of just copying other cities and some are even comfortable with being “second best”.

So who will stand on a platform for change as elected mayor?


9 Comments on “Guest post by Dr Mirza Ahmad: Current mayoral candidates represent Birmingham’s past”

  1. […] on from my previous guest posting on the Chamberlain Files, I have been asked by a number of people in (and out of) the city as to […]

  2. Phil Davis says:

    The mayoral issue is a diversion as the City will not enjoy any new real powers under an elected mayor. Unless a package of genuinely local fiscal powers is devolved (e.g the ability to control council tax, plus a local purchase tax and bond raising powers, the election of an individual simply ushers in a form of personality politics beloved of the media but potentially short on delivery.
    The current mayoral proposal also risks further fragmentation of strategic services like transport, which should be run regionally. London has a regional government, which provides the critical mass for much more much more efficient delivery of planning, economic development and transport policies. Why are we not being offered a West Midlands wide solution to current policy and service challenges? Even Birmingham is too small to tackle these and vesting a Birmingham mayor with special rights to “lead” bodies involving other parts of the region is a recipe for conflict, fragmentation and balkansiation – but perhaps this the Government’s actual intention?

  3. John – the current leader of the council was appointed by his group, so only 39 councillors were eligible to take part in that election. That means that 20 councillors COULD have decided the leadership. Yes, the junior partners in the council could have rejected the choice, but that seems an unlikely outcome. The same applies to a group that holds a majority. Even if Labour has only 61 seats after May, that still means that 31 councillors could effectively decide the leader of the group and leader of the council.

    Mirza – engaging youth voters is a problem the world over. They are generally a low turnout group, which is why the more elderly voters get a lot more attention – they turn out and vote more reliably.That means that politicians focus on capturing that age group with their policies and language, further heightening the gap. And in this sense, young actually extends from 18 to 34, as the 25-34 age group aren’t that much more likely to vote than those below them (and even the 34-45 age group are declining in participation markedly). The problem has been worsening since 1992 nationally. In short, it it isn’t just a fault of Birmingham politicians, but a failure across the board. So who does Dr Ahmad think would make a candidate capable of ticking all those boxes? I struggle to think of anyone who has the credibility to engage as he demands, aside from all those who have currently thrown their hats into the ring. I think you are wrong to dismiss them as part of the past, because that past gives them the experience and the knowledge that they will need. This is not a job for a political novice or an apparatchik.

    Pauline – entirely agree that this is one of the biggest jobs in the country and that the ideal candidate should be a very special mix of skills and abilities. We’ve got so many entrenched problems that will take time, effort and serious political capital to fix – we’ve still got severe deprivation and poverty in too many areas of our city. We are blessed with a disproportionately young population, but while that is an opportunity for our city, it is also a risk as they may wind up as the disappointed generation. We need to put these questions to the candidates and see what their vision is for our city and where they believe their leadership can take us.

  4. This city may well, by default, deliver a YES in the mayoral electoral referendum. Meanwhile, the chattering classes could have a slow walk around ( for example) the rag market and see if anyone know or gives a fig about the mayoral referendum.

    Potential and declared candidates who want to stand need to show respect for the electorate and speak to the people who live and work in this city, about the changes that are afoot.Political aspiration and opportunity is abundantly clear; how the people are being embraced is not. Whilst various political camps emerge and the media speculates, the people of Birmingham are marginalised in this crucial debate. Rampant unemployment, child poverty, debt and desperation are the hallmarks of too many lives right now.

    Make the debate real, make it relevent. Let’s have a candidate who talks to and cares passionately for Brummies; someone who who can offer people hope, a future and trust in their commitment to its people. It’s a rare historical opportunity for exemplary change and a time to ring in the new.The old guard should have the grace and humility to stand aside. They know who they are. Other people will see this referendum as a timely opportunity to raise their personal profiles in the city, and are therefore planning to toss their hat into the ring. That is simply politically cynical. This is the biggest job in local governenment in Europe, not just in the UK. We are in unchartered waters. We need a political dynamo with a heart and vision who can both embrace and inspire. We do not need any more political opportunists. Birmingham desperately needs and deserves a leader who can deliver for the many, not for the few; who cares about education and will protect the health and wellbeing of Birmingham’s people,young and old. Elected mayor or not, it is time for change.

  5. Thanks for your comments. I agree engaging the youth has been and will continue to be difficult for the currently declared (and potentially future) runners in the elected mayor race.

    Having a candidate who can capture the imagination of the youth and truly recognise their potential strengths will, undoubtedly, assist to build a better Birmingham for all.

    We all have to do our bit to raise the profile of the issues that matter and will make Birmingham, once again, the best governed city in the world.

  6. Tom says:

    Who are you to speak for the youth, are you suggesting you speak for the youth in that case? you hardly showered yourself in glory with how you ran your own legal dept in the City. This is all words with very little new stuff to say.

    • Miles Weaver says:

      Agree with this piece and Tom comment (which highlights a weakness). Using the “youth” tag needs to be more authentic than this. How will our youth in the city engage more with an EM? Answer this question and perhaps the statements above may be qualified.

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