Monday 1 April 2013

How Credible is Call for Referendum on Newham's Mayor?

It's been a while since I last blogged – the imminent prospect of redundancy has kept me busy these past weeks. There has, however, been loads of things that I've wanted to comment on and one of those is the announcement by George Galloway's latest project, the inappropriately named Newham People’s Alliance (NPA), that plans have been hatched to start a petition calling for a referendum on Newham's mayoral system. On 10 March, the NPA website briefly announced:
In an NPA meeting on Friday night in East Ham, over 100 local community and religious leaders voted unanimously to press ahead to trigger a referendum on the mayoral system. This comes after years of disengagement, faith-phobia, gagged representatives, and trophy projects at the expense of the ordinary people in one of the poorest and most disenfranchised communities in the country.

The NPA will be working closely with its legal team and the Department for Communities and Local Government to submit a petition in the coming months.
That was three weeks ago – and since then, not a word.

Don't get me wrong: if there is a realistic prospect of securing 10,000 local signatures for a petition to get rid not only of Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales but also the system that enables him to operate with little accountability, then I'm in. I wrote a blog post on how it could be done as far back in December 2011, after all. However, as I warned in a follow-up in January last year, collecting enough signatures is only half the battle:
“...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. ”

In other words, trying to trigger a referendum is not a decision made without a great deal of thought. Get it wrong and the Localism Act prevents another challenge for ten years.

Having worked with Newham's voluntary and community sectors for over a decade, I know there are hundreds of people who will sign a petition for a referendum. I'm just far less convinced that the Newham People's Alliance, which its links to the Respect party and its close identification with the specific concerns of a section of Newham's Muslim communities, has either the capacity or is sufficiently broad-based to coordinate a campaign that is better organised than anything the borough has seen before.

Certainly, in the weeks since the NPA announced its intention to trigger a referendum, there has been little evidence of initial momentum: no attempts at coordination with potential allies, no call for open discussion about the potential obstacles faced, silence on the need to debate more sweeping reforms that might convince local people this isn't just a dull procedural change aimed at returning to the way things were in 2001. Instead, the announcement looks too much like a stunt, an opening shot in Respect's campaign for Yvonne Ridley's candidacy for MP in two years time. And if that's all it it is, then it will fail.

The election for the next Mayor of Newham is in May 2014, which leaves little time for the steps necessary to abolish the mayoral system itself. I really wish a genuinely broad 'Bring Back Democracy' campaign in Newham was possible - but I fear a half-hearted one even more.

1 Comment:

Mikael said...

We can now confirm that
The Newham Peoples alliance is about to launch a full fledge campaingh this week. So far they have recieved 6000 signitures for the refrendum and are in talks with all parties (including many Labour rebels) that are willing to bring back democracy to Newham. Robs days are numbered and YES the time has finally come

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