As part of our coverage of Election 2012, we are asking for opinions on the referendum regarding a directly elected mayor for Birmingham.
‘Vote No to a Power Freak’ supporter John Hemming MP has his say:
Politicians are not perfect. People generally are not perfect. That is why we have checks and balances. There are controls on most elected officials so that they cannot simply do as they please. A directly elected mayor would not be subject to such controls.
The Prime Minister cannot simply do as he pleases. He has to keep the confidence of the House of Commons. However, a directly elected mayor could not be removed by the City Council.
There are many people who would like to have a personality based election for city mayor. This would turn the issue into celebrity contest. There would be a Birmingham version of London’s Boris and Ken show. The mayor, however, would have a lot more power than either Boris or Ken. What the mayor does matters.
In the USA the concentration of power into one individual often leads to corruption. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The power to remove someone after four years is not enough if things start going wrong after 6 months.
Across the country there have been 37 referenda about instituting a directly elected mayor. Twelve were passed and 25 rejected. The reason that having such dictatorial powers is normally rejected is that people know politicians are not perfect and that controls are needed between elections.
Urban Villages face a particular hazard from having a Mayor elected for the whole city. The mayor’s political attention is likely to be on high profile issues relating to the City Centre. It is even quite likely that the Mayor will take a leaf out of Ken Livingstone’s book and start travelling around the world (at the expects of Birmingham’s Taxpayers).
A directly elected mayor would only need the support of 41 councillors (out of 120) once a year to get the budget through. The Mayor would not need to get the agreement of the council for anything involving actually spending money, closing swimming pools or indeed transferring money between budgets.
At the moment the city leaders have to have the confidence of 61 councillors at all times. This is not as responsive a system as used to be the case with the Committee system. In the days of Joseph Chamberlain (elected councillor for St Paul’s Ward) the Council and its committees made all the decisions.
These decisions included setting up the municipal water company, setting up the gas company, creating the municipal bank (that turned into the TSB) and generally improving the city.
One thing the Yes campaign has failed to do is to explain why someone needs dictatorial powers to achieve things in Birmingham today when over 150 years ago it was possible through the committee structure.
Politics is about taking decisions, but also moving forward with the consent of the people. A mayor who only talks to the senior officers of the city council, top business people and a few selected journalists will quickly lose touch. There are considerable time pressures on senior politicians and it is easy for keeping in touch with the public to lose its priority. Obviously after 3 years and 6 months the mayor’s attention will move towards getting re-elected. Indeed it becomes possible for the citizens to select someone else to ignore them for another 42 months. However, this is not the way things have traditionally been done in the UK. Traditionally it is necessary to take people with you. It is possible to get the trains to run on time without being a dictator it just at times takes a little bit longer.
Our website (www.votenotoapowerfreak.org.uk) has details as to how elected mayors have gone wrong in other countries. It is worth finding out how bad can get. Obviously if we have a perfect person as Mayor things may not be that bad. However, I have never met a perfect politician.
In Stoke there was a referendum which got rid of the mayor. That campaign talked about bringing democracy back to Stoke. Democracy means rule of the people. However, we are not to be allowed the option of removing the system which will require primary legislation. Vote no to keep democracy in Birmingham.
John Hemming is a Liberal Democrat and is Member of Parliament for Birmingham Yardley. He is active in the ‘Vote No to a Power Freak’ campaign.
The ‘No’ campaign – “Vote No to a Power Freak”