Sion Simon quit the House of Commons to campaign for an elected mayor of Birmingham before voters rejected the idea. He tells Political Editor Jonathan Walker why he blames the government for the referendum result.
The former MP who quit the House of Commons to dedicate himself to becoming mayor of Birmingham has accused the government of “losing their nerve” over big city mayors.
Sion Simon announced in February 2010 that he was leaving Westminster to campaign full-time for a city mayor, in the hope of becoming Birmingham’s first directly-elected leader.
But his dreams were crushed in a referendum on May 3 when voters in the city rejected proposals for a mayor. A breakdown of voting in the city’s 40 wards published by the city council shows that in only two wards, Ladywood and Edgbaston, did a majority support a mayor.
Speaking to the Birmingham Post, Mr Simon, Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington from 2001 to May 2010, said the proposal was doomed to failure after the government ordered Birmingham and nine other cities to hold referendums, but then failed to explain the case for a mayor to voters.
He said: “People wrongly thought it would be an extra politician and an extra cost.
“It was never explained to people as a way of making politics more efficient and cheaper, which it would have been.
“Only government has the resources to educate and inform and explain to people what it was about, and they didn’t do that.
“I talked to thousands of people over the past two years and you only had to talk to them for them to see the benefits.
“People didn’t vote ‘no’ because they heard the arguments and rejected them – they voted ‘no’ because they didn’t hear the arguments.”
He added: “The government didn’t have the courage of their convictions. They wanted to float the idea gently and hope it would sneak through, but it doesn’t work like that.
“It was a failure of leadership by the government.”
Mr Simon also criticised “scurrilous literature” distributed by councillors opposing a mayor, but added: “When nine out of ten cities vote ‘no’, it is unlikely to be just down to that.
“It was a national failure of national political leadership.
“If you are going to have a referendum then you have a responsibility to put resources in to educating people and explaining to them what it is about. Failing to do that is pretty disgraceful.”
After dedicating his life to the mayoral campaign for so long – and surviving without a regular income – Mr Simon now faces an uncertain future.
One option he is considering is working on a novel based loosely on his time at Westminster, including stints as a minister under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
“I may write a book. I have a few ideas. It’s more likely to be a novel than a memoir. But it may be something in between. It’s more likely to be one where the names are changed.”
But the debate about how to govern Birmingham would continue, he said.
“We’re going to carry on with what we have been doing. I’m not just going to let it wither.
“This is a debate about the type of city we want to live in and the under-exploited potential, the serious problems that never get tackled.
“All of that is still true, even under a Labour council, although that will be a great improvement.”
Labour won overall control of Birmingham City Council in local elections on May 3, which Mr Simon welcomed as a Labour politician. But the system of local government in the city was incapable of tackling the challenges it faced no matter who was in power, he said.
“A lot of these issues are not susceptible to being tackled by the traditional council model.
“I’m going to continue saying these things and trying to keep the debate alive.
“But I have been doing this almost full time for the past two years and I’m not going to be able to carry on doing that.”
Asked if continuing the debate meant pushing for another referendum, Mr Simon said: “In the immediate term it is not a realistic possibility.
“But the problems haven’t gone away. The massive health and education inequality, the economic inequality, is still there. The council is not going to fix it.
“So the question remains, who is going to do something about these issues?
“It was never about having a mayor for its own sake. It was about the unacceptable rates of child death in parts of our city, the unacceptable rates of educational failure, and who is going to do something about it. One of the causes of these problems, the reasons they don’t get fixed, is the lack of credible leadership.”
He said he had been delighted when other Labour politicians announced they intended to fight him for the chance to become Labour’s candidate in a mayoral election.
MPs Gisela Stuart (Lab Edgbaston) and Liam Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill) both announced plans to seek the Labour nomination, but there were reports senior Labour figures including Harriet Harman, the party’s deputy leader, wanted to ban sitting MPs from standing as mayors.
This clearly could have benefited Mr Simon, and he was forced to deny that he or his allies in the Labour Party at Westminster were behind the move.
He insisted: “I was immensely pleased when other candidates came forward.
“It showed what a good idea a mayor was. It would have been a tremendously progressive change for the city.”