‘Don’t buy a pig in a poke’ might seem odd and archaic language. It’s true that the phrase is very old, but actually it can be taken quite literally and remains good advice.
The advice being given is ‘don’t buy a pig until you have seen it’. This is enshrined in British commercial law as ‘caveat emptor’ – Latin for ‘let the buyer beware’. This remains the guiding principle of commerce in many countries and, in essence, supports the view that if you buy something you take responsibility to make sure it is what you intended to buy.
On May 3rd, as well as the local elections, there will be refereda in 10 English cities on whether they want elected mayor instead of a leader and cabinet.
The idea of elected mayors seems to have the support of most national political leaders from the main parties. We’re told that it will revitalise local governmet, put the cities on the map, bring in investment, enthuse the electorate, etc, etc. Strange then, that the campaigns for elected mayors seem to have attracted so little interest or enthusiam from the electorate. Perhaps the unedifying Livingstone v Johnson farce in London has put people off.
The whole idea has its roots in the kind of 1980’s managerialism so favoured by the Blairites, with its emphasis on “charismatic” leaders unencumbered by the petty bureacracy of committees and cabinets…and (one suspects) democracy itself. It has never been explained how an elected mayor is going to revive local democracy or boost investment, or do any of the other wonderful things that enthusiasts for the system claim for it.
Interstingly, in Birmingham the keenest campaigners for an elected mayor (and the presently declared contenders) are all Labour politicians of the Blair/Brown era: Siôn Simon, Liam Byrne and Gisela Stuart – three of the most shameless careerists and wretched hacks to have graced the Paliamentary Labour Party in recent years (which is surely saying something). The Tories and Lib Dems in Brum are publicly opposed to an elected mayor and Tory Councillor James Hutchings is running the “Vote No to a Power Freak” campaign (that compares a future mayor with Hitler), but it is the worst kept secret in Brum that if the referedum goes in favour then Tory council leader Mike Whitby will immediately throw his hat in the ring.
The strangest thing about the entire elected mayor “debate” is that no-one knows what powers they will possess or exactly how the system will work. A recent letter to the Birmingham Mail put all the right questions:
THOSE in favour of a directly elected mayor for Birmingham have yet to address the following questions:
* How can Birmingham’s electorate vote on the creation of an office whose powers central government have yet to determine?
* How can potential mayoral candidates make credible promises over the next few months when central government will not announce the mayor’s full powers until after the election in November?
* An elected mayor will require only 40 of Birmingham’s 120 councillors to vote for their budget and strategic policies to be approved, whereas under the current system a majority of the council is required. How would this change enhance democratic accountability?
* In future it will require an Act of Parliament at Westminster rather than a referendum for Birmingham to change the mayoral system should it prove unsatisfactory. How is it more democratic for central government to remove forever the right of Birmingham’s people to trigger a referendum on how they are governed?
* Will elected mayors be able to decide for themselves to reduce the number of local councillors and the frequency of local elections?
* An elected mayor will be able to appoint an unlimited number of deputies, advisers and commissioners. What democratic scrutiny will there be of such appointments, how are their salaries decided, and can they be removed from office by anyone other than the mayor?
*Under what circumstances can a mayor be ‘recalled’ or otherwise dismissed during their term of office?
Rather than vague arguments about personalities offering ‘strong leadership’, the debate on elected mayors should address these serious questions about the future of local democracy in Birmingham
-David Parker, Hodge Hill
As far as I’m aware no-one has yet provided Mr Parker with the answers he seeks. But it’s not quite true that we have simply no idea how the system would work. Apart from the London experience, there’s also:
* Stoke, where Labour Party member Mark Meredith was elected Mayor in 2005, only to decide that the mayoral system was unsuitable for dealing with the City’s long-term financial deficits and re-forming a de-facto Cabinet model for the council (the ‘Elected Mayor and Manager’ arrangement). When the government withdrew this option and ordered a second referedum in October 2008 the position of Elected Mayor was abolished and replaced by the old council leader and cabinet set-up (albeit on a turnout of just 19%). Mr Meredith continued in his £69,000 role until being arrested in March 2009 on suspicion of misconduct in public office and complicity in corruption in public office. In the end no charges were brought due to “insufficient evidence.”
* Doncaster, where Peter Davies of the English Democrats was elected in 2009 with 22% of first preferences on a 36% turnout (ie 8% of the electorate) on a platform of “English freedom and values not multiculturalism,” withdrawal from the EU, an end to political correctness and mass immigration and “the right to enjoy and celebrate Englishness.” He has stated that Britain could learn about family values from the Taliban; perhaps unsurprisingly, his first act on election was to cut the funding to the town’s Gay Pride event. He is also on record as stating that “there is no such thing as child poverty.” In 2010 the audit commission declared that Davis “lacked the political skills to build and maintain consensus” and acknowledged that his public statements had served to “worry sections of the community who are already vulnerable.” Since then the running of Doncaster has been overseen by a team of commissioners sent in by the government.
With these inspiring precedents, it’s pretty obvious how Brummies and the others should vote in their referenda… isn’t it?
And remember: it’s elected Police Commissioners next!
*Acknowledgements to John Harris in the Guardian
* Useful factsheet here