This time next week we’ll all know how many of our biggest cities will be run by elected mayors. A total of 10 are asking their residents whether they want to ditch their council leader for a city mayor - for many though, the referendum could be about to go unnoticed.
Having spent the last few days in Birmingham and Bristol it’s become abundantly clear how few people even know about the vote. That’s the main worry the Yes campaigners have – low turnout. Bristol doesn’t have local elections this year – so getting people to turn up at polling booths could prove rather difficult. And therein lies the main problem the No campaigners have – low turnout could mean a very small proportion of people voting for major change. In truth, there hasn’t really been a ‘national’ campaign raising awareness of the referendum. I haven’t seen one poster in either city and apart from Birmingham candidates are few and far between.
There is a quiet expectation that Birmingham will vote for an elected mayor – it has high profile supporters who want to stand, like Liam Byrne and Gisela Stewart. Both have helped put the issue on the local agenda and could persuade residents to go for the change. There is also an element of pride creeping in, Birmingham is the second city and wants to be seen as such across the world – a mayor, like it or loathe it – could represent them globally.
Bristol is an altogether different city, there’s less identity with it, it’s smaller and has for years been run in what can only be described as in a chaotic fashion. But residents are independently minded, so who’s to say how they will vote?
There are major fears though in each city. Many think too much power in the hands of one person is undemocratic. The leader of the Bristol No campaign, Bill Martin, says it’s ‘nonsense’ that a ‘celebrity’ could run the place – coming in from outside and knowing nothing about it. He’s also amazed at the potential cost, why spend a fortune when the council leader is perfectly capable of doing the job at no extra expense.
The arguments for and against are the same across the country. They can be debated back and forth all day. One thing that is certain is that these are some of the biggest constitutional reforms the coalition has proposed. If all ten cities vote yes, they could become much more powerful. It’ll be a milestone in the devolution of powers and a momentous political change for local government.