Friday, September 28, 2007

Coconuts for All: Boris for London

London loves to think of itself as a major international city but when you look at the Mayoral candidates for the two main political parties it seems to be a rather different story: Red Ken for Labour, vs Bumbling Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party. Both have their place in politics but let us be honest, both are also a bit of a joke. A major international city should have future Prime Ministers and Presidents vying to cut there political teeth as Mayor. Compare for example London with New York; it is quite possible that next years presidential election may see a three way fight between Hillary Clinton, the current New York senator for the Democratic party, Rudi Guiliani, the former New York mayor for the Republicans, and Michael Bloomberg, the current mayor who may stand as an independent. Compare this to London, who have settled for comedy political sideshows as their major candidates.

Having said that at least London have got a mayor; the main political parties in Birmingham have stitched us all up ensuring that the current shambles of a council will remain to make non-decisions. This effectively means for the foreseeable future we will be stuck between an indecisive and incompetent ConDem coalition, or an arrogant and unaccountable Labour administration. Their blogging political lackeys, such as Prague Tory or Political Hack rubbish the independent such as Sir Digby Jones, Karen Brady or Carl Chinn, but have they had a look at who is vying to run Birmingham at the moment? For the Conservatives, Mike Whitby Whitless, who spends most of his time distancing himself from Labour inspired regeneration projects and coming up with ridiculous alternatives in their place. And the inconvenient truth is that Al Bore is aptly named. I'm not usually a fan of personalities taking over politics, but I think a charismatic leader is exactly what Birmingham needs to take itself forward. Our local political parties are bereft of such talent at the moment.


Bob Piper said...

I couldn't disagree more if I tried. There are so many issues here it is difficult to know where to start. How about... 'unaccountable Labour administration'. What on earth do you think the elections are about each year? You can call politicians incompetent if you wish, but all of the political parties who stand in the local elections make themselves accountable to their electorates. If they are unaccountable... how would a Mayor be more accountable?

The whole notion of having a 'celebrity' candidate, be it a bloke dressed in a monkey suit in Hartlepool or Carl Chinn in Birmingham, and giving them virtually untrammeled power should be anathema to anyone committed to a democratic system

Birmingham was built as a great international City by Conservative politicians largely in the 19th Century... not by some 'celebrity' who has appeared in the media a lot. London is a different matter. It is a City spanning a variety of boroughs and with a need for a strategic authority. I'm all for a regional democratically accountable body with responsibility for strategic decision making on issues like planning, regeneration, transport etc, but not a single Mayor with all the decision making vested in them.

Louis said...

In theory, a lot of what you say is correct Bob, but in practice it isn't. No-one in Birmingham voted for the ConDem coalition. With only a third of the councillors up for election each year, the previous Labour administration knew it would always be in power for another couple of years regardless of how unpopular they were (and they were unpopular). Therefore individual councillors may be accountable, but those concerned with the overall direction of Brum have no real way of registering their opinion. Local politics is a real mess, with people voting on national, regional, local and ward issues almost simultaneously. The results therefore vary widely and reflect little of what the people want overall. Electing a mayor would be a better option because he would lose his job at the next election if unpopular, and people would be voting on what is good for Birmingham, not the mish-mash of local and national politics mentioned above.

As for democracy, what is more democratic than giving the people a referendum on whether they want a mayor? Forget this petition nonsense; I know as a member of the Support City Hospital Campaign how difficult it can be to get people to sign a piece of paper even when they agree with you. The previous referendum deliberately split the Mayor vote down the middle with two options against the one for no Mayor.

I don't really want a celebrity candidate (I don't believe Carl Chinn would be a good Mayor), but we need a strong leader who would bat for Birmingham on a national basis. I believe Digby Jones and possibly Karen Brady, while not perfect, would be better than their party political equivalents.

Finally, I agree with you about the regional democratic body. I would prefer to see a democratically accountable body in charge of all of the West Midlands rather than just Brum with a figurehead to bat for the region nationally. Perhaps the local councillors act as a check for decisions regarding their boroughs. However, I am not an expert on constitutions or the current plans for Mayors and how they are planned to develop, but a City Mayor is to me a step in the right direction.

JRD168 said...

I'm somewhere in between, I can just about understand the view that an elected mayor may just be what Birmingham needs to bang a few heads together, and begin proving Birmingham to be the internationally recognised city it's claimed to be. At the moment, I would place Birmingham as a bit of a laughing stock, especially if you see what Manchester, Leeds, even Sheffield have achieved in recent times.

Having said all that, having all the power of a mayor vested in one place seems dangerous to me. I'm a little nervous of the idea of a "charismatic" leader, "effective" might be more like it.

Maybe Bob's idea of some kind of over-arching Midlands body, democratically elected, could be the way forward? It certainly would be better than the current ego-driven inertia that bedevils Birmingham politics.

Bob Piper said...

louis, your argument for a Mayor to replace councillors is an argument for a President to replace Parliament. On the same basis that individual councillors 'cannot get things done' why not the same for MPs. It is actually an argument for a benign dictator... which appeals to many until they suddenly get one who is not benign.

It doesn't matter whether you don't want Carl Chinn (who in my opinion would be light years better than Digby Jones or the useless Karen Brady)... it is a matter of who people would vote for. When a 'personality' can appeal to a media image, you are on a rocky road away from democracy and towards a charismatic dictator.

If we have a City Mayor in Birmingham you are arguing for the abolition of the City council... a very dangerous step indeed, and nothing like the situation that exists in London.

Louis said...

As I have said, I would prefer a Mayor for the whole of the West Midlands, but that is not a choice we have been given. A Birmingham Mayor is the next best thing. I also don't see how I am arguing for the abolition of the City Council - wan't one of the options in the original referendum for the Mayor to pick his cabinet from among council members?

I also think it is bizarre to compare a directly elected Mayor to a dictator.
He would be directly accountable to the electorate and would ultimately also under the jurisdiction of Westminster if he were to attempt get rid of the elections. Compare that to the the situation now; how do we get rid of Mike Whitby? Competing issues at local elections make tactical voting virtually impossible. The situation for MPs is different because general elections are fought mainly on national issues (there are of course local exceptions), and all the seats are up for grabs so mini-revolutions such as those in 1945, 1979 and 1997 can take place.

I would argue the closest thing to a benign dictator we have had is Tony Blair. If he had stood as a presidential candidate instead of behind the popular MPs of the Labour Party, the British people may well have got quick of him a lot sooner.

Isn't the argument here between you as a councillor and me as a voter. Under the present system you have some power and I have little. With a Mayor the situation would be reversed. In a democracy, who should have more power; a party politician, or the voting public?

Bob Piper said...

louis, no I don't think the argument is about me as a politician and you as a voter. In fact, with regards to Birmingham I am neither so I don't think I can be accused of trying to cling on to whatever power you imagine I have. As I have argued for a strategic regional body you could even argue that I am offering to give up some powers.

What surpises me a bit is your assertion that you are not 'a fan of personalities taking over politics' but then seem to base all of your criticisms on personalities, with ne'er a mention of policies. So you talk derogatively about Mike Whitless and Al Bore (without apparent regard for the fact that they would be the two front runners in any contest) and 'Red' Ken and Bumbling Boris.

You write a good, intelligent blog without having to resort to the politics of the playground when discussing serious issues about local democracy. I'm all for the public making decisions, with the widest possible involvement too, but I would prefer it if they were given a choice on issues, not who tells the funniest jokes or gets the most tv coverage.