"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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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