The Co-operative Party debate, An Elected Mayor: A good move for Birmingham? was cordially chaired in the Co-operative Hall, Margaret Street, by Jim Sweeney.  Sion Simon, formerly the MP for Erdington, spoke in favour and John Boyle of the Co-operative Party and Midlands Co-operative Society, against elected mayors.  

Sion Simon – a fluent speaker – reminded all present that the proposal is part of the legislation in the forthcoming Localism Bill, and that it has been decided to have a referendum on the subject in the relevant cities on 3rd May and if this supports the election of a mayor this will take place on 15 November. He then described Birmingham as a great city and surprised one listener at least by saying that the Midlands still had the largest manufacturing sector in the world. He noted a loss of pride in the city, not evident in Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow and asserted that the way the council is organised does not work, citing:

  • long-standing unemployment;
  • healthcare outcomes – and babies twice as likely to die;
  • 71 failing primary schools and 25 at secondary stage;
  • disastrous transport system.

Mr Simon said that the council leader does not see these failings as his responsibility but that a mayor elected by people of city could make council work because s/he would have the authority to call people and organisations together and take control. He concluded that someone needs to take responsibility and instil sense of values and confidence in the city.

John Boyle opened by explaining that his work involves encouraging people to take active part in co-ops and in their localities. Instead of focusing on the system he examined the ‘fabric’ of the process. He said that the last 30 years have seen an emasculation of elected local councillors and that having an elected mayor will not magically solve problems. The media prefer to feature famous personalities and doesn’t give full coverage to co-operative issues because there is no leader to glorify or vilify, but the co-operative way which involves people is more democratic; democracy involves more than one day’s voting for one person.

Mr Boyle was satisfied with the present system but added: “it is the individuals in it who are the matter”.  He recommended that:

  • the community should be challenged to elect worthy representatives who would work to eradicate poverty in the city;
  • government should be asked to give councils powers equal to those in mayoral cities;

and concluded that at worst it is better to have 60 idiots instead of one.

Discussion time included: 

A powerful plea for regional government by Phil Davis, former chair of the West Midlands Regional Assembly is summarised here as the chair reminded all that this was not the subject of the day. 

Steve Beauchampé made a thought-provoking contribution from the floor. He was rightly critical of the fact that we are being asked to vote without being given information: there is no job description and no indication of checks and balances. Other potential problems were mentioned:

  • it would be very difficult to remove an unsatisfactory mayor;
  • rescinding the office of mayor needs an act of parliament;
  • a mayor can appoint a number of unelected ‘special advisors’ who, will – as in London – be highly influential.

Mr Beauchampé’s final warning was that during an election campaign candidates will call for support and – if elected – will be expected to repay these favours.

Caroline Bradley spoke about her experiences in trying to bring issues to the council leader, Mike Whitby and then to Stephen Hughes, getting no answer from either person. She supported the proposal for an elected mayor because she felt that s/he would be more responsive.

Bernard Parry said that at present in Sutton Coldfield votes not cast for Conservatives were wasted. That would not be so in a mayoral election

John Cooper thought that there was a need for a mayor because the council has been failing wards in the city and wondered what a mayor would do to make the council more effective.

Barbara Brooks, whose 12-year-old son can see no prospects for the future, picked up a point made that the next mayor would be a white male. She said that she didn’t ‘give a monkeys’ about sex or ethnicity as long as the elected mayor could do a good job, adding “someone needs to take responsibility for what is going on.”

Concluding remarks:

John Boyle said councils should have the resources they need and that it was better to have 60 elected representatives who care passionately about people than one who cared about power and authority. A mayor can give lip-service during the campaign, “please vote for me” and when elected think “‘well cool . . . cushy job” and just sit back.

He referred to ownership and later explained that all over the country people are no longer waiting for local and state government to act for good and run their lives; they are taking control – acquiring, owning and running shops, pubs and post offices and generating energy on a co-operative /mutual basis.

Sion Simon assured those present that the role of councillors would not be not be downgraded and that the mayoral cabinet would be elected. Further information on his proposals can be seen on his website.

Opinion was evenly balanced and there was a majority of only one against the proposal for an elected mayor.