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.