It’s been 12 years since Sir Albert Bore announced that it was inevitable Birmingham would follow London by choosing to be governed by an elected mayor.
Asked in 1999 about the future of local government, he said: “London is going to have a directly-elected mayor. When London starts to have clout, which it has not had up to now, what are the large cities outside of London going to do?”
The answer to the question was that all of the largest English cities would reject change, preferring to stick with the cabinet and leader system.
Sir Albert, speaking shortly after becoming Labour city council leader, probably under-estimated the scale of opposition to the idea.
It quickly became clear that the enthusiastic support for American-style city mayors from Prime Minister Tony Blair was not shared by most of his colleagues.
Ministers and MPs were, to say the least, agnostic about mayors, although some made their opposition clear to what they saw as an abuse of democracy.
In an effort to hold his party together, Mr Blair had to agree that cities like Birmingham would only get mayors if local people approved. It would be necessary, therefore, to hold a referendum on the issue – which could be triggered either by the council itself, or through a petition raised locally.
Sir Albert, facing challenges to his leadership because of his support for mayors and wish to hold the office, also had to compromise.
He could not get Labour group support for a binding referendum on whether Birmingham should be run by a mayor, so opted instead to test the water by holding a consultative ballot, organised by MORI at a cost of £40,000.
With 87 out of the then 117 Birmingham city councillors opposed to an elected mayor, Sir Albert’s campaign never really got off the ground.
Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors joined forces to launch the anti-mayor Campaign for Real Democracy, claiming that placing so much power in the hands of one person would lead to financial irresponsibility and corruption. There were many examples quoted of American mayors who had been jailed for embezzlement and fraud, or who had promoted their cronies into public office. Hours before ballot voting slips were to be sent out, Sir Albert broke his silence in a letter to the Post: “It is the worst sort of political arrogance to assume that only elected politicians have the wisdom to advise on how their city should be run – and it can only damage the already low esteem in which the political process is held by many local people.”
It was too little, too late. When the ballot result was announced, it became obvious that a more forceful ‘yes’ campaign might have made a difference.
Upon the Government’s insistence, voters were asked to choose between three types of governance – the leader/cabinet system, a mayor and cabinet or a mayor and chief executive. Council leader and cabinet attracted 46.4 per cent, elected mayor and cabinet 40.2 per cent, elected mayor and chief executive 13.4 per cent.
Although a majority of those taking part – 53.6 per cent – wanted a form of elected mayor, the then Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford decided that Britain’s first past the post voting system meant that the 46.4 per cent support for continuing with the existing system was good enough.