Hmmm. Who will get the blame if cities reject the idea of an elected mayor this week?

It’s potentially a huge week for local democracy in cities across the UK – namely Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield.

In each of those cities, voters are being asked to choose whether or not they’d rather their city was run by a directly-elected mayor. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition describes the votes as proof of its localism agenda in action – offering voters the chance to directly elected their town hall leader, rather than voting for a party which can chop and change its leadership at will.

The assumption, up until now, from many has been that the vast majority of cities will vote Yes. In Salford, where a referendum was forced through public petition, the result was a yes (admittedly on a low turnout) and on Thursday folk in Salford will pick who that mayor will be. It won’t be the existing council leader John Merry, who after being vocally critical about the cost of the referendum, chose to stand for selection as Labour’s candidate, but was rejected.

In Liverpool, the city council decided to dodge the referendum vote and just decided to do it – so in Liverpool too there will be an elected mayor waiting in the wings on May 4.

So that’s two areas in already – and there has been an assumption that other areas will follow. Or rather, there was. Earlier this week,  Birmingham Labour MP Gisela Stuart, a pro-mayor politician, surprised many by warning that Birmingham could vote no.

In Manchester as early as the start of April, The Manchester Evening News reported its own survey which showed city voters were split on whether they wanted an elected mayor or not. Last weekend, the Sunday Politics’ North West edition debated why there was such little awareness on the streets of Manchester about the referendum. Salford council leader Merry, when challenged on the suggestion that councillors didn’t want to debate it because they wanted to retain the status quo, responded:

“So it’s our fault rather than the media is it? Surely the media has a great power here. There’s a referendum taking place here. I would have thought you would have given it rather more prominence than you have done.”

In Birmingham, former Birmingham Post public affairs editor Paul Dale noted this of the Labour leader in the city:

Yup, it’s already shaping up to be our fault.

Expect more of the same if cities vote no later this week. The mayoral debate of 2012 shares many traits with John Prescott’s doomed regional assemblies vote in the North East, North West and Yorkshire/Humberside in 2004. Both campaigns have got many people talking – but generally only those people either within, or directly connected to, political circles.

Despite spending millions of pounds and allowing the then deputy prime minister to focus almost all of his time on a regional assemblies ‘awareness’ campaign, Labour dropped its plans for a referendum in the North West and Yorkshire/Humberside. The reason given was concerns over postal voting, but it was widely accepted that both regions were likely to vote No, largely because few people living in either the North West or Yorkshire/Humberside identified with those regions. 

The North East did go to the polls – and voted 77% voted no.  For part of the build-up toward the regional assembly vote in the North East, I worked as political correspondent on The Journal, which was campaigning vocally in favour of a regional assembly. Despite such vocal support from a regional newspaper, it didn’t take the yes campaigning politicians long to blame the media for the no vote. Phrases such as ‘didn’t explain it properly’, ‘didn’t report the debate’ and ‘If we’d had a fair crack of the whip’ were all heard.

Expect more of the same after Thursday if the ‘yes for an elected mayor’ results don’t come tumbling in. The blame, I would argue, doesn’t lie with the media, so much as with Government itself. The Government shouldn’t rely on the media to stimulate interest in electoral reform. The media should, of course, cover such changes, but the media also has to provide content which readers/viewers/listeners/users are interested in.

The lack of a single, convincing sentence on what difference a regional assembly/mayor would make is what unites the doomed campaign of 2004 and the sudden lack of confidence in a yes vote this week. Behind the balloons, Prescott’s battle bus and the discussions among the political classes was a void where the simple list of what things a regional assembly would do sat.

The same applies to the elected mayor debate. No-one can say for sure what additional powers elected mayors will be handed from government above and beyond those already enjoyed by councils. Indeed, one political editor working for a title I work with (disclaimer: I’m digital publishing director for Trinity Mirror Regionals) pointed out to me the fact that within the same bill which created elected mayors, there are 147 additional powers for Whitehall to intervene in the running of Town Halls.

The media can report what is happening, but it can’t report a response that isn’t there. How many posters have you seen in voting cities for or against the referendum? How much press advertising has there been? Type in ‘elected mayors’ or ‘directly elected mayors’ into Google and you have to scroll for pages until you find anything provided by Government which is meant to explain to people what an elected mayor can do for a city.

Steve Dyson, the former editor of the Birmingham Mail who led a campaign to force a directly-elected mayor referendum in Brum back in 2007, wrote on the Chamberlain Files blog in July 2011 that:

 The current wittering is as near as damn it to meaningless to Joe Public and Mrs Annie Body – the people responsible for deciding on whether or not to have an elected mayor.

If it remains so, the already tepid reasons to vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the forthcoming  referendum will start to chill – though the ‘no’ count may well inflate as frustrations at a perceived irrelevance of the proposed system become positively annoying.

To grab the general public’s attention and interest in the debate – let alone to stir a passion for change – the city has to start talking about what an elected mayor might mean for the average man and woman of Northfield, Sparkbrook, Weoley Castle and countless other suburbs.

Yes, I’m talking about the electorate, 99 per cent of whom live outside the city centre and are more interested in improved security on new buses than securing new business improvement districts.

10 months on and the wittering has continued. The campaigners appear to have failed to have got the public’s attention – hardly surprising when the Government can’t even get articles explaining the mayoral debate on to the first page of Google results for anyone trying to find out what’s going on. Despite all that, the scapegoat is already being lined up by some – and guess what, it’s us.

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