"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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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.