Last Thursday was local council election day. Like many other party activists across the City I spent much of the day on the telephone. “Have you been to vote yet?” I’d ask.
Those who said “yes” I pushed a bit further. “And how did you vote in the referendum on the City Mayor?”
The answers were revealing as well as sobering. Roughly a third had said yes and another third no.
The rest either had not voted at all, could not remember how they voted or would tell me they crossed the “top box or the bottom box” but were not really sure what it all meant.
By Friday afternoon Birmingham had said no to a directly elected Mayor.
That’s democracy and it’s no good going on about missed opportunities and how different things would be if there had been a yes. But there are some lessons which need to be learnt, if participatory democracy is to mean anything.
First. Don’t mix constitutional issues which divide political parties with other elections. Last year it was the Alternative Vote, this year it was the elected mayor.
Individual councillors and party members took different positions and the closer we got to the council elections the less we debated things which divided us.
Second. Put a straightforward question on the ballot paper. Voters, as well as campaigners for that matter, talked in terms of yes or no. There was no yes or no box on the ballot paper; what we got read more like a sixth form essay question.
The Electoral Commission is independence, but it should take advice from politicians. We really do understand elections more than anyone else.
Third. Giving power away seems to be the hardest thing to do. The government had not, and still has not, decided what powers the City Mayor would have. Asking people to vote for a change on the way they are being governed without being precise what these changes amount to is foolishly arrogant.
A government holding a plebiscite, must do so in terms which are clear. It would also help if the governing party could support its own policy locally. Where was the Tory campaign for a City Mayor in Birmingham?
Birmingham doesn’t want a Mayor. But at least have a Labour majority, with Albert Bore as an experienced leader, and some pretty sharp new Labour Councillors.
But devolution of power in England [outside London] remains unfinished business. On 15th November the West Midlands will vote on a Police Commissioners. There will be a regional democratic dimension to policing, but what about transport and economic regeneration?
Birmingham’s population is young and growing, but we lack jobs and skills. These problems have not gone away, and indeed, have become more difficult to solve.
Maybe something good can come out of this yet – a strategic regional mayor. This should have been on offer this time round, but wasn’t. We may yet get the chance to “make the weather” as Joe Chamberlain did all those years ago.
* Gisela Stuart is Labour MP for Edgbaston. She had stated her intention to stand as mayor of Birmingham, if voters backed a mayor in a referendum.