in Politics

No mayors, but missed opportunities

Birmingham City Hall

Birmingham: Not home to directly elected mayors

A week after the elections one set of results particularly disappoints me.

Not the Conservative and Lib Dem losses – while I’m sure we lost many fine councillors this election was a typical mid-term where the government is traditionally punished. Coming from a high point four years ago the losses were not at all surprising.

What really disappointed me were the results of the mayoral referenda.

As a localist, of course, I’ve no problem with the people all those cities exercising their right to not to have mayoral government. But I can’t help thinking they have missed an opportunity. Mayoral government isn’t right everywhere, but surely some of those cities would be better with a mayor than a traditional council.

The result that disappointed me most was Birmingham. I’ve a soft spot for the city, I don’t know why – I’ve no connection and probably wouldn’t particularly want to live there. But I have enjoyed every time I have visited or worked there. And I’ve always pondered the oddity that leaves it struggling to be seen as the second city ahead of Manchester, when on all objective measures Manchester shouldn’t even be in the running.

And one should not forget Birmingham’s magnificent local government heritage. It is the place that made local government. Led by Joseph Chamberlain Birmingham initiated massive improvements in the lives of its residents, and remains a great example of innovation at local level that would be impossible now after decades of centralisation and prescriptive legislation.

Chamberlain was not directly elected, but used the position of mayor to provide exactly the sort of personality-driven leadership a modern directly elected mayor should provide. In doing so Birmingham became a laboratory of democracy which changed both the city and Britain for the better.

His contribution was so significant that I write about him under the assumption that you have at least a vague idea of who he was. But I’d also bet you couldn’t name either new or old leaders of Birmingham.

'Diamond' Joe Quimby, dressed as a sandwich

An avatar for British local democracy?

As an aside, a few years ago I ran, with someone else, a website called Cllr Tweeps. It was a fairly simple searchable directory of councillors by name, party or council on Twitter in the days before Twitter became mainstream. In its day was the biggest, and I like to think best, directory of its type. (We eventually ended it because of the cost in both time and money, and because a publicly funded equivalent was created, although even now I think ours was more useful to councillors and residents).

The accompanying Twitter account needed an avatar, a picture to represent local government. After much searching we decided the best image was ‘Diamond’ Joe Quimby.

Animated, American and directly elected though he was, not a single person complained, or even commented, that it wasn’t the best representation of British local government. He was just accepted.

And this country’s existing mayors all seem to have been accepted too. I didn’t see any serious debate in the recent London mayoral compaign about the existence of the position. Doncaster actively voted to keep their mayor, despite being seen as ‘controversial’.

Perhaps it is simply that those cities who voted no don’t want to be laboratories of democracy. Maybe they will re-consider after Liverpool, Salford and Bristol have had mayors in post for a few years. Though by then they will be playing catch-up.

Returning to Birmingham, I can’t help feeling that some of the reasons suggested for Bristol’s yes vote on the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog should have applied:

Even those in favour of a mayor recognised a yes vote would be a leap of faith. But it was a leap worth taking. Why? The overarching narrative of the ‘Yes’ campaign was an appeal to civic pride and to a sense of underachievement. Bristol may be one of the richest cities outside of London but there is a feeling that it is less than the sum of its parts.

The no votes were an expression of localist will. That should be respected and celebrated. But I wonder if Chamberlain, having seen so much changed by his time in local government, would be comforted or shocked to see that Birmingham’s government still works in much the same way as it did when he ran it.

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