Tory and Lib Dem manifesto no-show helps to make the case for elected mayor of Birmingham

Mike Whitby, leader of Birmingham City Council...

Mike Whitby

The local government elections on May 3 are likely to mark the end of an era in Birmingham.

If a referendum to be held on the same date steers the city in the direction of having a mayor, the annual contest to choose 40 of the 120 city councillors may never again enjoy the same prominence.

The mayor, who will be elected once every four years by 720,000 registered voters, will call the shots in future. The mayor will: choose a cabinet, draw up a budget, take important strategic decisions and also assume the role of chief executive with direct control over the officer corps.

City councillors will still have an important scrutiny and regulatory committee role, and probably will be given the task of overseeing delivery of devolved local services at constituency level.

Those who complain that councillors will have nothing much to do under the new system should consider that Birmingham’s 10 constituency committees handle combined budgets of almost £100 million and, under plans put forward by Labour, will take control of a wider range of services including housing management, refuse collection and street cleaning as well as libraries, sports centres, swimming pools and neighbourhood offices.

Labour, at least, has had the decency to issue a detailed manifesto setting out what the party intends to do if it wins enough seats on May 3 to take control of the council. And since a net gain of only four additional seats is required, the prospect the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition being booted out of office after eight years seems pretty much a given.

As for the coalition, or progressive partnership as council leader Mike Whitby would say, no city-wide manifesto has been published yet for May 3 by the parties, either jointly or separately. For certainly the second year running, possibly three years, Birmingham Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have not had the decency to tell electors what they would do if they were to win the election although I suppose ‘more of the same’ would sum it up.

There may be localised mini-manifestos put out by the two parties highlighting issues at community level, although I have not seen one, but to the best of my knowledge there is no policy document for Birmingham, or if there is it is locked away and being treated on a need to know basis.

This is a stunning example of the way political groups sometimes take the voters for granted, and has no doubt contributed to a public mood-swing that will manifest itself in a ‘yes’ vote in the mayoral referendum. Such a blatant refusal to engage in the democratic process does, in its own way, rather make the case for having an accountable elected mayor.

A call to Coun Whitby’s office seeking clarification went unanswered. An appeal via Twitter prompted an answer of sorts from Moseley Lib Dem councillor and cabinet member Martin Mullaney, who proclaimed that the “Council Plan” is the coalition’s manifesto.

A good try, but the Council Plan is a weighty statutory document running to 225 pages which all local authorities are obliged to produce. And while it sets out in great detail the council’s budget and how £100 million savings are to be achieved, it could not in any sense be described as voter-friendly. There is, incidentally, no mention of the Council Plan on the homepage of Birmingham City Council’s website, although it can be accessed via the search engine.

The irony here of two political groupings, where the majority view is that an elected mayor will be a power freak, failing to publish an election manifesto upon which they can be judged is almost too great for words. Will Mike Whitby, once vehemently opposed to mayors, who has performed the most excruciating of U-turns and now plans to run for the office, publish a manifesto? He will have to come up with something pretty original to convince observers that his conversion is based on nothing more a last desperate throw of the dice to remain in power.

It is inconceivable that a mayor seeking re-election for a 13th year as the leader of Birmingham, as Coun Whitby does, would breezily dismiss any idea of having a manifesto and would avoid a policy launch where the press or, God forbid, members of the public might ask questions.

If the referendum on May 3 does usher in a new system of governance, all of the main political parties will have to get used to operating differently. The council leader-cabinet system will continue for six months until the mayoral election on November 15, with the new mayor taking control the next day.

There is a clear possibility of friction developing between the mayor and the constituency committees, particularly over the more politically sensitive areas such as housing management and highways services. Friction could turn into open warfare if the majority political affiliation of the 12 councillors on a constituency committee does not match the political colours of the mayor.

Were Birmingham on November 15 to elect a Labour mayor, for example, the winning candidate would have to cope with Tory-run Sutton Coldfield with its £8.2 million budget and Liberal Democrat-run Yardley with an £8.5 million budget.

If we assume a Labour landslide on May 3, then the party may take control of eight constituency committees. But with a third of city councillors re-elected every year, the political complexion can change and could fairly quickly tip the balance of power in several constituencies back towards the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore insists there should be few differences of opinion, since the manifesto he has put forward for May 3 will act as a “policy bedrock” for an incoming mayor.

Strangely, Sion Simon, who is competing against Sir Albert for Labour’s mayoral nomination, appears to have played little or no part in compiling that manifesto. Indeed, Mr Simon published his own list of proposed policy pledges a week before Sir Albert which in turn had no input from the city council Labour group.

It emerged then that neither Mr Simon’s camp nor Sir Albert’s camp was aware of each other’s policy launches, which were originally planned for the same day. I don’t suppose I am alone in thinking that the six months from May to November are going to produce some remarkable politics in Birmingham, although perhaps not quite as positive as the Labour Party might expect.

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18 Comments on “Tory and Lib Dem manifesto no-show helps to make the case for elected mayor of Birmingham”

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  6. Most councillors get elected by people who wouldn’t recognise them if they walked past them in the street. The job is so remarkably unglamorous and unattractive I am surprised that anyone with any talent aims to become one at all. Most people don’t vote in local elections and many of those that do make their preferences on the basis of national politics not on local issue. It is hardly a surprise that we get councillors who are unsuitable for the role and who behave in such a lousy fashion. A Mayor will be recognisable and therefore far more accountable. Do you really think Bob Warman or Sion Simon would go and live elsewhere if they got the job?
    I agree that checks and balances are a good thing. But making sure the voters know who the candidates are is surely one of them.

    • If you look at the recent history of directed elected Mayors, you do end up with some unexpected results.

      Hartlepool ended up with a ‘Hartlepool monkey’ who did no campaigning and did it as a joke.

      Doncaster ended up with an English Democrat as Mayor, who again did no campaigning.

      The directed elected Mayor contest has the potential to turn into an X-factor style contest, where the winner is someone who is doing it for a ‘laff’. This is why we need checks-and-balances in place, in case this happens. Otherwise, a directed Mayor could end up destroying Birmingham and we can’t stop them.

  7. Marc Reeves says:

    Martin’s right to play the ‘removal’ or ‘recall’ card. It’s the strongest argument in the arsenal of the ‘no’ camp, and one that’s been handed them on a plate by the Government in its reluctance to prescribe the mayoral arrangments for specific cities.
    One may understand that Greg Clark doesn’t want to hand over powers before he can see the whites of the new mayors’ eyes, but saying nothing on how a loony mayor can be removed is doing nothing for either side in the debate.
    The problem with councillors being able to vote down every mayoral decision is that it undermines the very principle of the new role – the ability to make hard decisions in the short term that are seen to be the right thing in the long term (eg congestion charging).
    ‘Awkward squad’ councillors will be tempted to press the ‘no confidence’ button at every opportunity, seriously impeding a mayor’s ability to govern.
    One solution is the Japanese model of ‘mutually assured destruction’. This means that when a group of councillors go for – and win – a no confidence motion, that also automatically triggers the dissoloution of the whole council and they’re all up for re-election again.
    That would focus minds on both sides.

    • There are different types of directed elected Mayors. The type I would support is a directly elected Lord Mayor – someone who has purely an ambassadorial role and maybe have the power to call in decisions made by the Council Leader and Executive. This role is very similar to the role of President of Ireland.

      As a city we do not make maximum use of our Lord Mayor, relegating the role to purely someone who visits local charities and cutting the ribbon for new playground equipment. To other countries the traditions surrounding the role of Lord Mayor is very powerful and influential. The Lord Mayor role should be used to help support delegations from Birmingham trying to attract companies into Birmingham.

      With an elected Lord Mayor, people like Carl Chinn or Bob Warman would be perfect. Selling the brand ‘Birmingham’ to Europe and World.

      As I have said before, I can not support the proposed all-powerful Mayor, who will just be an elected dictator.

  8. >The current system of annual elections ensure that these individuals are quickly weeded them out and any damage limited.

    Councillors are elected on a four year cycle too Martin. And there is nothing local people can do about that either—at least with a mayor we’d get a chance to see what they’d actually done (and they could do things as they’d have power) as compared against what they said they’d do.

    • With the current system, the party whip can be removed, Cabinet members can and are removed by the political parties….or even the Leader removed. With the annual local elections, residents can indicate their disquiet at the ballot box.

      If you had an Independent elected Mayor who was removing funding from all art organisations and community events, how would you show your disquiet? You would have to suffer four years of maniac damage before getting rid of them.

  9. Not sure that Martin is in a place to criticise anybody over ripping up their manifesto after an election. Did someone say tuition fees?

    • ….and tuition fees is a good example of elected representatives being elected on a particular agenda and then voting another way once in power. It could happen with an elected Mayor.

  10. Just to add to what Ian Robo said above. My view is that I do not have an issue with an elected Mayor per se, but I do have a problem with the proposed elected Mayor for Birmingham.

    The proposed elected Mayor would have none of the checks-and-balances that exist in the present Council Leader and Cabinet system or in the other forms of directly elected Mayors across the world.

    Whoever is elected Mayor of Birmingham – if the public vote for such a system in May – then we will have a person who can do whatever they want for four years. Unless the residents of Birmingham vote for a Saint, then the following could potentially happen and there is nothing in place to stop it:

    • The elected Mayor could rip up their manifesto and make changes that didn’t exist on their manifesto. For example remove all funding to art organisations, community cohesion projects, recycling schemes or cycling scheme themselves. We couldn’t stop it

    • The elected Mayor could move 200 miles away to live and occasionally pop back to Birmingham. We couldn’t make them resign.

    • The elected Mayor could fill the Cabinet with just their family members and we couldn’t stop it.

    • The elected Mayor could because serious ill, either physically or mentally, that makes them unable to carry out their duties, but refuses to resign or hand over control for a period. We couldn’t make them step aside

    All the above could happen and there is nothing we can do stop any of them. All the Mayor needs is the a rump of Councillors – one-third of all elected Councillors – to support their annual budget and that’s it.

    If you believe none of the above could happen, then think again – it already happens with local Councillors. The current system of annual elections ensure that these individuals are quickly weeded them out and any damage limited.

    Don’t vote for a directly elected Mayor, if you want to stop corruption and nepotism swallowing up Birmingham politics.

    • Typically a politician’s behaviour is kept in reasonable check by the fact that he/she wants to be re-elected, be popular and to advance their career in general. Any Mayor who did what Martin is suggesting would be in for a huge amount of criticism and probably not get re-elected. Unlike MPs in ultra-safe seats or anonymous Councillors (who get away with a lot), the Mayor of Birmingham would be very visible and therefore open to far more scrutiny. Nonetheless, you always have to keep a close eye on the buggers.

      • ian says:

        in the current system Jon every 3 years out of 4 you have the chance to vote and actually remove those parties you do not like.

      • I do wish it was a simple case of “a politician’s behaviour is kept in reasonable check by the fact that he/she wants to be re-elected,” Birmingham’s record on behavior of Councillors over the last 8 years has not been good.

        We had five thrown out for postal vote fraud
        We had two leave Birmingham, move over 100 miles away and refuse to stand down.
        …and only last week one Councillor swearing and shouting at a Constituency meeting.

        All Councillors want to do their best for the community, but from time-to-time they make mistakes – and sometimes those mistakes have an element of self interest. A directed elected Mayors would have those same faults and that is why we need checks-and-balances in place.

        With the present Council Leader and Cabinet we have checks-and-balances in place. With the proposed directly elected Mayor there are NO checks-and-balances.

  11. ianrobo says:

    I have to ask, what is the point of local parties with manifestos if all the power will be stripped away and the power residing with one person.

    In fact if voters ask ‘what is the point of councillors now’ ? that would be a fair question given the greatest centralisation of power in my lifetime is planned.

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