"Electing mayors will let in the BNP". Labour accused of dirty tricks

Local parties have been accused of scare tactics ahead of tomorrow's referendum. But why the strong

As the country readies itself for a raft of local elections tomorrow, the news of a dirty tricks campaign should be no surprise.

In amongst elections for local councillors, ten cities – including Birmingham, Nottingham and Leeds – will hold a referendum on whether to introduce elected mayors in the style of London.

The Times (£) reports this morning that local Labour groups have been attempting to scupper the chances of a “yes” vote. In Nottingham, thousands of leaflets were sent out implying that voting in favour of a mayor would put far right parties in power:

The Racist BNP and EDL want a £1m extra mayor. That’s the only way they can win in Nottingham. Stop them by voting first option [against a mayor].

Jon Collins, the leader of Nottingham City Council, stood by the leaflet, saying that “we needed people to know that the BNP and EDL support a mayor for Nottingham”.

The paper also reports that in Leeds, local party whips told Labour councillors that if they backed a mayor, they would not be promoted. A former councillor said that there was “a climate of intimidation”. In Newcastle, Unison spent a reported £20,000 on leaflets opposing elected mayors (the union disputes this figure).

So why this strong opposition to directly elected mayors? After all, the idea was pushed forward by a Labour prime minister -- Tony Blair, who said in 1995 that elected mayors could be “a modern symbol of local government”. It marks a devolution of power away from Westminster, and cities that vote “yes” will gain a significant increase in funding from Whitehall (Liverpool is already getting around £130m a year more).

One obvious reason that local parties would oppose directly elected mayors is that it will have an immediate disruptive effect on local councils, changing the way they work and depleting their power. The fact that mayors’ powers remain ill-defined will compound this worry.

Another factor is that this is another opportunity to score political points. Tory ministers are reportedly anxious about how many cities will vote in favour of elected mayors, with signs that even Birmingham might stick with the status quo. These worries are well founded. Since 2001, 37 towns and cities in the UK have voted on whether to introduce elected mayors, and only 12 were in favour. Thursday already looks set to be a bad day for the Tories, and further losses would compound this.

These cynical scare tactics obscure the debate over whether this could actually improve local democracy, and serve no-one, least of all the constituents voting tomorrow.
 

A Boris Johnson supporter unveils a poster at the launch of Mr Johnson's bid to be re-elected as Mayor of London on April 10, 2012. The capital has had a directly elected mayor since 2000. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.