The elected mayor debate has sprung to life thanks to the ill-judged antics of the No Campaign and their ‘elected dictator’ leaflet.
The leaflet showed images of blitz damaged Birmingham and said that the city has always stood up to dictators.
There has since been much debate about whether or not the analogy is an accurate one and whether it was appropriate to invoke images of Nazis and Hitler in to a debate over city governance.
But as leader of the No campaign, that maverick Lib Dem Yardley MP John Hemming told me: “It has given us a few headlines and got people’s attention.”
The poll, taken in mid-February, showing that 59 per cent of voters were oblivious to the referendum was neither surprising nor a cause for concern with several weeks of campaigning ahead.
I suspect awareness is now much higher, and after the City Council sends out a referendum mailshot to all 400,000 households that will rise further.
What is worrying is that several live debates seem to have been attended by the same people and few of them are in the ‘don’t know’ camp – the very people who could tilt the relatively balanced vote either way.
And among those regulars is the frontman for the No Campaign, Tory councillor James Hutchings.
With his colleagues Hemming and Godsiff tied up in Parliament, it has fallen on James to take up the campaign challenge with gusto. After 20 years as a quietly effective backbench councillor, he has come to the fore in this citywide debate.
Coun Hutchings, who was in steel wire manufacturing before politics, bravely demanded the right to speak against a pro-mayor panel of Lords Heseltine and Adonis, Leicester Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby and Local Government minister Greg Clark in front of the massed ranks of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce at their referendum launch event in January.
He has also put the No campaign’s case on television interviews, including last weekend at a Radio WM debate, where he compared the elected mayor to miniskirts: “They are fashionable and seem sexy right now, but the fashion will change.
“I have found myself outgunned on several occasions. The Yes campaign have Lord Heseltine, the Chamber of Commerce, Sir Digby Jones, Uncle Tom Cobley lining up to argue their case,” he said.
But one thing which is clearly exercising him is the perceived lack of balance, which is why he seized the microphone at the Chamber and feels so aggrieved that a University Of Birmingham event seemed rather one-sided – being about the type of elected mayor rather than a yes or no debate.
He says it was more like a rally than a debate.
Privately quite a few Tory and Labour councillors and almost all, if not all, Liberal Democrats are opposed. But until more step up to the debate it will be left to James to soldier on, with occasional support from Hemming and Godsiff.