London’s mayoral elections earlier this year demonstrated that a contest between two heavyweight contenders could grip the public’s imagination.
Most people in the capital had an opinion on Boris versus Ken.
At the same time as Londoners went to the polls, Birmingham residents were taking part in local elections. But it is likely that only a minority of them could even have named the leaders of the major political groups in the city.
When voters know who and what they are getting, there is a much greater sense of accountability. It is harder for politicians to escape scrutiny and public opinion if everyone knows their names.
Undoubtedly, the London poll generated interest because the two major candidates were both high-profile figures with big personalities. But Birmingham is quite capable of producing personalities of its own.
Perhaps, therefore, Hazel Blears is taking a long overdue step in making it easier for residents in cities such as Birmingham to trigger a referendum on whether to have a directly-elected mayor.
In today’s world, it makes sense to allow petitions to be signed online – although it does raise the question of how signatures can be verified.
The prospect of allowing votes to happen every four years is perhaps less welcome. Once a decision has been made, there is no need to go through the expense of making it again so soon.
But it will be a good thing if debate takes place about how Britain’s big cities can achieve greater independence and improve the way they are governed.
There are, however, important differences between London and the rest of the country.
For a start, the powers of the London mayor are limited compared with those of a council such as Birmingham’s.
He shares responsibility for certain functions with the London Assembly, and the capital is also covered by a network of borough councils which are not under his control.
In Birmingham, despite the creation of a series of neighbourhood committees, power is vested in one body – the city council.
As things stand, council leaders and their cabinets rely on the support of the council as a whole to do their jobs, avoiding excessive centralisation.
Under a mayoral system, that power would be held by just one person. The result, according to opponents of a mayor, would be to distance people from local government, not to bring them closer.
What happens in London is not necessarily a blueprint for Birmingham. But it does raise questions the city should consider.