Thursday, 1 December 2011

How To Get Rid Of Newham's Dear Leader

Over the years and usually over a few drinks, conversation has turned repeatedly to a reoccurring and increasingly tiring topic: are we stuck with Newham's Mayor Sir Robin Wales for ever?

For seven years before taking up his current post, Wales was council leader and since 2002, he has presided over a cabinet system in Newham that carries considerable patronage and influence from the top. This has made Wales extraordinarily powerful, because uniquely among the fourteen local authority areas that have directly-elected Mayors, there is no political opposition - Newham's municipal politics are the Labour Group's internal politics.

The fact that a majority of those who bothered to turn out for mayoral elections (34% in 2006 rising to 52% in 2010, on the back of a closely fought General Election) tend to heavily vote Labour in Newham has always been one of the biggest obstacles for those who would like to see the back of Sir Robin Wales. Opposition parties have been unable to agree upon a single candidate to stand against him that they can all support. So too has been the lack of of term limits: the Local Government Act 2000 that introduced directly-elected mayors did not include them and it remains the decision of political parties to choose who they select. Locally, there is no-one in the Labour Party likely to mount a challenge to Wales (and therefore risk their comfortable council allowances) unless he chooses to stand down and so the Mayor, now 56, could easily be with us for the next 20 years or more. Imagine how imperious he'd be in 2031...

The other more significant problem with the 2000 Act, especially for those of us who believe the mayoral system places far too much power in one individual's hands, was its lack of a mechanism for undoing the referendum that created the post of Mayor back in January 2002, on a meagre 26% turn-out. However, I am indebted to Forest Gate resident Kevin Mansell for pointing out that this is no longer the case. Under the Localism Act 2011, which fulfilled the Coalition Agreement pledge to "allow Councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to", it is now possible to hold another referendum if a council's current model of governance was itself the subject of a vote. Local authorities can do so by a resolution of the full council, which in this borough is never going to happened. But the new law also says that a referendum can be triggered if a petition signed by 5% of the electorate is submitted to the council.

In 2010, there were 195,058 people on the electoral register. That means a petition would require 9753 signatures. At the last local election, all the opposition parties were committed to a new referendum and 30,446 electors voted against Sir Robin. Finding less than a third of them to sign up to a call for a new vote should not be an insurmountable task.

That's not the end of the story of course: even if a referendum was triggered, any fledgling 'Bring Back Democracy' campaign in Newham would have to make damn sure that it pulled people out to actually vote against the continuation of a directly-elected Mayor. Even with a broad alliance, including all those who are unhappy about council cuts, that's not such an easy task given the patterns of electorate turn-out in the past. Moreover, if the campaign failed, the Localism Act prevents another challenge for another ten years.

But as far as I'm concerned, I don't want to ever hear another grumbled conversation about how vital it is that we are rid of our dictatorial Mayor. If people are really serious, then the means are now available to make it happen if they are willing to put in the hard work.

However, with the next local elections in London due in 2014, any decision on starting a petition and launching a campaign must be made in 2012. And no, I'm not volunteering to organise it - after all, I'm not the person who ever starts the reoccurring and increasingly tiring conversations...

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