Thursday, 10 September 2009

Is There Anyone But Wales?

Labour holds 54 of the 60 council seats in Newham and the old joke says that the Labour vote in the borough is so large, it is weighed rather than counted. The Tories may hold a 17-point lead over Labour nationally, despite more people expecting the economy to improve in the next 12 months, but Gordon Brown’s woes are unlikely to make much difference in this part of east London when councillors and our directly elected Mayor face the polls in May 2010.

In all probability, we will see an even lower turnout than in 2006, when only 34.47% of registered voters participated in council elections. One problem may be the absence of an authentic choice that seems to have any prospect of influencing the way Newham council operates, although it is worth remembering that more people turned out where there was a genuine contest, between Labour and Respect in the Green Street wards and in East Ham North. But Respect has collapsed into bitter recrimination, two of its three councillors in Green Street West are now independents and the party has had little difference locally since 2006. Unless something dramatic happens in the next 9 months, the elected opposition to Labour’s one-party mini-state is likely to be even smaller than it is now.

One important factor that complicates this situation is the enormous personal power of Mayor Sir Robin Wales, whose decisions on a wide range of policies require a two-thirds majority of councillors to amend or reject. The impact of the transfer of power from backbench councillors working in committees to an elected Mayor - in only 12 councils out of 37 that have held local referenda to consider this change - has been particularly dramatic in Newham precisely because of the stranglehold Labour has on local council politics. Since Sir Robin Wales became the party’s first directly-elected Mayor in the country in 2002, his unwillingness to delegate powers and his patronage of well-paid Executive Member posts has ensured the compliance of Labour Group members, who also face no pressure from below from largely moribund ward parties. Moreover, even those who loathe Wales admit he is a consummate New Labour operator, far savvier than the incompetents and time-servers he is surrounded by.

The result is that after seven years in power, there is little to restrain Wales’ burgeoning ego, which seems to be getting more and more out of control. He really does believe that he - and he alone – knows what’s best for Newham. And what’s ‘best’ seems to be more competition, more ‘modernisation’ and an obsession with ambitious regeneration projects. Reading Dave Hill’s account of a Mayor's Question Time event in February 2009 gives an insight into just how arrogant Wales has become.

Part of the reason why two-thirds of the borough (including myself) decides not to take part in local elections may be a sense of having little chance of influencing the outcome – and the fault for this lies in the hands of Wales’ political opponents. Their combined vote was greater than the 28,655 who voted for him in 2006 and although I’ve been told there was some discussion three years ago about a deal to have only one candidate stand against Wales, partisan politics got in the way and it fell apart.

The ideal solution would, of course, be the abolition of the post of elected Mayor, which has been discredited by the manner in which its current post holder has exploited its powers. But although a number of opposition political parties made this manifesto commitment in 2006, there has been no subsequent campaign for a new referendum. So that leaves action at next year’s election – or another four years of the Great Helmsman.

Seriously, we can’t keep on moaning forever about how terrible Sir Robin Wales is. Absolutely everyone I know would love to see a change of Mayor in May 2010 and would vote if there was a credible ‘Anyone But Wales’ candidate. I’m sure the turnout would be far higher and even I’d vote for once - things are that desperate. There must be someone who’ll stand, preferably an independent but at the very least a good public speaker with experience of the borough’s needs and the skills to deal with the council’s senior management.

Politicians always say that if you don’t vote, you have no reason to complain, as though democracy is just something the public is only expected to involve themselves with once every four years. But sixty-six percent of Newham’s population would have less reason to complain if offered a genuine alternative.

So please - does anyone have any suggestions?


sukhwant said...

so why don't you stand as an Independent Mayoral candidate?

Kevin said...


Because I'm a terrible public speaker and I don't have the patience to deal with the council’s senior management - I can't even stand to be in the same room as Newham's divisional director of culture.

Thanks though, but there has to be someone who is actually 'credible'!


Luke said...

How do you get a referendum ?

Kevin said...


The main problem is that ection 34 of the Local Government Act 2000 seems to have been designed to prevent a petition triggering a referendum to move away from a directly elected Mayor. It only concerns petitions which ask 'in support' of "whether the [local]authority should operate executive arrangements involving a form of executive for which a referendum is required".

This has been reinforced by secondary legislation (SI 2000/2852 and SI2001/760) which prevent electors from calling for a referendum to abandon the directly elected Mayoral system.

In a debate in Parliament, minister Hilary Armstrong said that "we do not accept that it should be possible for local people to force a referendum to abandon executive arrangements with an elected mayor through a petition", but that "there is, of course, the possibility that local people could petition the council for a referendum... Provided that five years have passed since the previous referendum, the authority will, of course, be able to act on such a petition."

So in other words, the law says the council has to agree to a referendum and even if they receive a petition, they don't have to act upon it.

If, however, enough signatures were collected and it became a vibrant local issue, it would be more difficult for elected representatives to ignore. But I can't see this happening before May 2010.

Anonymous said...

Any candidate that stands against Wales, should say they want to revert Newham's Mayor to the role of a ceromonial Mayor, rather then an executive Mayor.

Mike Law said...

Better still, anyone who takes on the role should follow the example set by Stoke and run a referendum on the issue.

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