Over lunch at Saturday’s Counter Olympic Conference, I was once again pulled into a discussion with campaigners about Newham’s terrible directly-elected Mayor and how much better the borough would be without him. The plea I made in December not to hear another grumbled but inconclusive conversation about how vital it is that we are rid of Sir Robin Wales clearly hasn’t worked.
As I explained back then and again on Saturday, the means are now available under the Localism Act to change the way Newham is governed. However, even if there are enough people willing to put in the hard work to collect signatures and trigger a referendum, any local 'Bring Back Democracy' campaign would also need to be brilliantly organised, better than anything the borough has seen previously. It would need the confidence to guarantee that enough people actually turn out to vote for change: in January 2002, the referendum that created the Mayor and Cabinet system had only a 26% turn-out. That would mean ward-by-ward voter mobilisation, lots of willing volunteers and money: enough to pay for publicity to cover over 91,000 households.
Thinking more about this over the weekend, the organisational obstacles are only the start. If, by some Herculean effort, the position of directly-elected Mayor was eventually abolished, what would happen then? In an area where integrity mattered, it would be nice to think that the current incumbent would resign, but it’s just as likely that Wales would simply step back into the position of council leader, one he held from 1995 until 2002. Even if his position was untenable within the local Labour Party, look at the calibre of politicians in Newham and imagine who would take over – probably one of the long line of staggering mediocrities who have loyally served the Dear Leader over the last decade.
Nor would we ignore one of the principal reasons for the deference displayed by most councillors on key issues over the last ten years. Many are now dependent on a salary for representing their constituents that is far higher than the average local wage. Disobedience carries the risk of demotion, political exile and even the dole. No wonder they toe whatever line is given by whoever holds the power of patronage.
It will be tough to encourage a large number of local people to vote for a change in the governance of Newham when all that is on offer is a return to the way things were in 2001. Yes, seeing Sir Robin Wales humiliated might be satisfying, but perhaps it’s worth thinking a little more ambitiously?
Personally, I think a 'Bring Back Democracy' campaign needs to argue not only for a referendum on the Mayor and Cabinet system but for:
- an end to full-time councillor positions and to automatic allowances, with elected representatives paid only for time off work (possibly as compensation to their employer, if they are working, to encourage companies to support the principle of local public service).
- a right of local residents to demand an annual recall vote of their elected representatives if they believe their councillor is useless and can gather enough signatures in support.
- far greater openness and transparency, including a presumption of automatic publication of everything unless the council can show that disclosure would cause genuine harm.
- the establishment of Neighbourhood Forums in Newham that are created by local people themselves (perhaps with a minimum requirement for the numbers of streets) but formally recognised by the council and
- the use of further local referenda to validate any large scale redevelopment plans (such as the proposals for Forest Gate, Canning Town or for Queens Market in Upton Park).