The elected mayor debate has sprung to life thanks to the ill-judged antics of the No Campaign and their ‘elected dictator’ leaflet.
The leaflet showed images of blitz damaged Birmingham and said that the city has always stood up to dictators.
There has since been much debate about whether or not the analogy is an accurate one and whether it was appropriate to invoke images of Nazis and Hitler in to a debate over city governance.
But as leader of the No campaign, that maverick Lib Dem Yardley MP John Hemming told me: “It has given us a few headlines and got people’s attention.”
The poll, taken in mid-February, showing that 59 per cent of voters were oblivious to the referendum was neither surprising nor a cause for concern with several weeks of campaigning ahead.
I suspect awareness is now much higher, and after the City Council sends out a referendum mailshot to all 400,000 households that will rise further.
What is worrying is that several live debates seem to have been attended by the same people and few of them are in the ‘don’t know’ camp – the very people who could tilt the relatively balanced vote either way.
And among those regulars is the frontman for the No Campaign, Tory councillor James Hutchings.
With his colleagues Hemming and Godsiff tied up in Parliament, it has fallen on James to take up the campaign challenge with gusto. After 20 years as a quietly effective backbench councillor, he has come to the fore in this citywide debate.
Coun Hutchings, who was in steel wire manufacturing before politics, bravely demanded the right to speak against a pro-mayor panel of Lords Heseltine and Adonis, Leicester Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby and Local Government minister Greg Clark in front of the massed ranks of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce at their referendum launch event in January.
He has also put the No campaign’s case on television interviews, including last weekend at a Radio WM debate, where he compared the elected mayor to miniskirts: “They are fashionable and seem sexy right now, but the fashion will change.
“I have found myself outgunned on several occasions. The Yes campaign have Lord Heseltine, the Chamber of Commerce, Sir Digby Jones, Uncle Tom Cobley lining up to argue their case,” he said.
But one thing which is clearly exercising him is the perceived lack of balance, which is why he seized the microphone at the Chamber and feels so aggrieved that a University Of Birmingham event seemed rather one-sided – being about the type of elected mayor rather than a yes or no debate.
He says it was more like a rally than a debate.
Privately quite a few Tory and Labour councillors and almost all, if not all, Liberal Democrats are opposed. But until more step up to the debate it will be left to James to soldier on, with occasional support from Hemming and Godsiff.
It appears that the spirit of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is alive and kicking in the West Midlands.
In his classic study of a dystopia, 1984 the Ministry told the story it wanted to tell regardless of facts. Despite attempts to make the public sector more transparent, accountable and accessible, it sometimes still manages to creep towards the propaganda-laden world he described.
The cross party co-ordinating scrutiny committee tore into the poor performance of Birmingham City Council’s Capita-run call centre for over an hour-and a half. Their experience and those of their constituents was not reflected in the report which said: “The performance of the Service Birmingham Contract Centre compares very favourably with top quartile organisations across the private sector”.
There was also talk of ‘triangulating data’, ‘dashboard monitoring’ and ‘root cause analysis’ which led councillors to throw their arms up in horror.
Labour front bencher Steve Bedser was quick to use the Orwellian tag: “The report is using jargon to present unbelievably positive picture at odds with reality.” Quite.
The police are similarly not immune to this disease, as anyone who has tried to get information out of them on a Sunday can attest.
Having blocked off a road on the Quinton, Oldbury border since 7am, passers-by could see several vans, a dozen marked and unmarked cars, an ambulance crew and most surprisingly armed officers milling about behind the cordon.
The police press office is closed Sunday, and contactable only via a police call centre. Those messages rarely get through. So when officers on the cordon say “call the press office” and the reporter replies: “It’s closed, we can’t get a message through’ the only answer the robot police officer has is ‘call the press office.” Meanwhile residents and neighbours as well as people on Twitter, are wondering if someone is armed and dangerous? Is it terrorism?
Almost 12 hours later, after much debate on twitter, the answer arrives – a siege at knifepoint. The police then had the temerity to ask for a media blackout.
There was an observably serious incident happening – in view of anyone driving along Hagley Road. But according to the Lloyd House Ministry of Truth, there was nothing to report.