Why the No-Vote was Right for Birmingham

Dr. Andrew Coulson

What a relief to wake up on Friday morning, 4 May 2012, and know that Birmingham will not have a directly elected mayor.  It was a most ill-informed referendum. The media, the business community (both Birmingham-based and national) and the government campaigned in favour. But the case against was hardly made at all until very close to the referendum, so there was little real discussion of what the new post would actually involve, or its advantages and disadvantages.

If it had gone ahead, it would have been the most divisive administrative change ever to hit the West Midlands. For London advocates of an elected mayor, it was presented as a new leader, able to speak for the whole West Midlands. That is not how it would have been seen in Dudley or Wolverhampton. The new mayor would also, probably sooner rather than later, have fallen out with the councillors elected to represent Birmingham wards, whose democratic mandate would be at least as strong as his or hers. If the council was controlled by a political party different from that of the mayor, that would have been a given from the start. But even within one party, sooner or later there would have been disagreements.

The job was impossible – to take over everything that Birmingham City Council and to influence every other organisation or group in the city. So every parent who could not get a child into a school of choice would have come to the mayor. So would the relatives of every patient that could not be discharged from hospital because suitable care arrangements were not in place.  Or every young family with a housing problem. There is no way one person could respond to that level of pressure. It is hard enough to understand the different cultures of the city – North and South, inner city and suburban, the highly complex racial geography.  There is nothing to be gained from trying to run everything that happens in Birmingham through one person, since however much he or she tries to delegate the buck will stop there and people will know it and soon get disappointed and frustrated.

Some of those arguing in favour of a mayor have no faith in councillors, and conclude that the biggest challenges would face chief officers. They should look carefully at what they wrote: do they really believe in a democratic process in which all the politics runs through one person?  or is their agenda to try and take politics and choice out of local government altogether?

A mayor of Birmingham was presented as the same as or similar to the Mayor of London. But Boris Johnson has virtually no powers, and only one major service to run. That is why mayors of London get so involved in public transport, and have time to promote economic development, regeneration and the Olympics. The services that affect people day by day are mainly the responsibility of the London boroughs.  The proposal for a mayor of Birmingham should have been presented as comparable to the Mayor of Newham – and there could then have been a realistic discussion as to whether having one would make a difference and how a mayor of Birmingham would relate to the Black Country or neighbouring counties.

There were no safety valves. At least a Leader can be voted down by a vote of no confidence in the Council meeting, or at the AGM. The city could have been stuck with a disastrous mayor for four years – becoming the laughing stock of the whole country, and an object of pity, and with no way out.

So now the newly empowered Labour administration in Birmingham will have to demonstrate that it is more effective than a mayor can be. Not an easy task given the general lack of discussion of the difficulties a mayor would have faced, and when the previous administration has partly lived off balances, and run the head office capacity of its departments down to the bare minimum or less. There are bound to be crises and failures, and some very difficult decisions to be made. The good property is that Labour’s showing in Birmingham was so strong that the party is almost guaranteed office for four years.

The sad reflection is that a case can be made for a directly elected mayor, not of Birmingham, but of the West Midlands, either as the city-region defined by the seven metropolitan districts, or as the whole standard region including the four adjacent county areas. That would have made the West Midlands like Boris’ London, and the resulting mayor might have had sufficient clout in London to bring jobs and training opportunities to the region, deliver the investment needed in public transport and deliver the coordination between the regional arms and agencies of central government and local agencies and trusts.

Dr. Andrew Coulson is Lead Consultant on Overview and Scrutiny at INLOGOV,University of Birmingham, with wide experience of Overview and Scrutiny.  He has recently launched one of the first assessed qualifications on the subject.  His further research interests include partnerships and governance, economic and environmental strategies, and local government in Central and Eastern Europe.

Huge Whitehall battle over mayoral powers, reveals Heseltine

There was no camouflage flak jacket, no ceremonial mace to brandish, no Downing Street front door through which theatrically to exit a ministerial career, but who needs props, if, like Michael (now Lord) Heseltine, you’re one of the great headline-makers of your political generation. He managed it again at last week’s University of Birmingham Mayoral Debate, and against the odds.

For a start, the event seemed set up more as a rally than a debate – bringing together “leaders and representatives from business, education, politics, and the community, to discuss the benefits that an elected mayor could bring to Birmingham”.  Once Catherine Staite had set the scene and identified some of the key arguments , the views of the remaining speakers – Lords Heseltine and Adonis, and CBI Regional Director, Richard Butler, a late replacement for Petra Roth, elected mayor of Frankfurt, one of Birmingham’s partner cities – ranged, though not in order of speaker, from enthusiasm to evangelism.

Mayor Roth’s absence was unfortunate.  By comparing her own experience – Mayor since 1995, and previously a member of the Hesse Land (state) parliament – with the varying powers and responsibilities, terms of office, election and recall provisions of Germany’s other major city mayors, she could have broadened the discussion and maybe even provided a headline or two. Instead, Patrick Wintour, Political Editor of The Guardian and Chair of the debate, looked to and was well served by Lord Heseltine, British politics’ answer to Sunset Boulevard’s retired silent-film star, Norma Desmond: “I’m still big; it’s the stages that got smaller”.

The prompt was a question from Councillor Sir Albert Bore, former Leader of Birmingham City Council, Leader of its now minority Labour Group, but here a mere member of the audience.  One of Labour’s earliest and strongest mayoral supporters and an aspiring future candidate, Councillor Bore asked when Ministers were going to indicate explicitly the additional powers that could be transferred to cities voting for elected mayors in the May referendums: “The Government should come clean about what powers are on offer [to mayoral cites]. If they are no more than to a current council leader, they risk losing the referendums to a No vote”.

There was no imperative for Lord Heseltine to say anything of substance. He could have treated the question as rhetorical, or left it to the other panellists – but, of course, he couldn’t resist. He couldn’t, he confided conspiratorially, reveal too much, and indeed he didn’t. He said enough, though, to give Patrick Wintour his headline: Whitehall battling to avoid losing power to mayors, says Heseltine” .

There was a “huge battle” among Ministers, Heseltine intimated, over how much extra power should be granted to elected mayors across almost all relevant functions: money raising, transport, welfare, strategic planning, and economic policy. Some ministers – and no doubt their civil servants – aren’t keen on transferring anything of significance. The Lib Dems further complicate an already dual-track policy deriving from different sections of the Localism Act. Pro-decentralisation, but anti-mayors, they want devolved powers for any city able to make a case, regardless of its form of governance. Cameron, according to Andrew Rawnsley in Sunday’s Observer, doesn’t want anything too radical, that could be attacked as yet another U-turn.  Oh yes, and the theoretical enforcer, Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation and Cities – responsible for the ‘City Deals’ policy that is the chief source of grief for Councillor Bore and other mayoralists – isn’t even able to punch the weight of a full Cabinet member, let alone take on the PM.

City Deals were introduced in last December’s Cabinet Office prospectus, Unlocking Growth in Cities – . The Government would work with individual cities to achieve a series of genuine two-way negotiated agreements that would enable cities to do things their way. The prospectus accordingly set out an “illustrative menu of bold options” (pp.8-9) that Ministers would be willing to discuss as part of the deal-making process – greater freedoms to invest in growth, the power to drive infrastructure development, new tools to help people acquire skills and jobs. In return, where cities wished to take on significant new powers and funding, “they will need to demonstrate strong, visible and accountable leadership and effective decision-making structures” (p.2 – emphasis added) – this last clause being universally understood as code for having an elected mayor.

In addition, “other than as part of a city deal negotiation, the Government does not intend to reach any view about specific powers that might be devolved.” (para.10 – emphasis again added)

The logic is sound, and the localist intent probably sincere. A mayoral system and the mayor (or leader) personally will determine the details of any city deal; the system will be determined by the referendum; so the content of the eventual deal cannot be known, let alone announced, before the referendum. Councillor Bore’s point, however, is equally irrefutable: without knowledge of the nature of the deal, voters may lack the incentive to vote for a mayoral system in the first place.

So is there a way out of this closed circle, or ways of signalling to voters the kinds of powers an elected mayor could bring to their city? Perhaps. First, Whitehall hostilities notwithstanding, the Government could do – maybe in the March 21st Spring Budget – what many were hoping for in its January response to its mayoral consultation, What can a mayor do for your city?, and give some indication of what mayoral cities specifically might expect from its “illustrative menu” of city deal options.

Though not comprehensive – with no mention of additional sources of revenue funding, or of police and fire services, for example – it was a wide-ranging list, much too lengthy to be reproduced here. However, it included: a single consolidated capital pot, rather than multiple funding streams; access to an additional £1 billion Regional Growth Fund; new infrastructure funding through Tax Increment Financing; devolution of local transport major funding and responsibility for commissioning rail services; devolution of Homes & Communities Agency spending and functions; and the creation of City Apprenticeship Hubs and a City Skills Fund, enabling adult skills to be tailored to the needs of employers.

No matter how enticing the list, though, it doesn’t in itself answer Councillor Bore’s question. The closest we can get to that is the one mayoral city deal that has been negotiated and publicised so far – with Liverpool. The Labour Council are bypassing the referendum process and moving straight to the election of a mayor in May, and have negotiated a deal that the Leader, Joe Anderson, hitherto a critic of a purely city mayor, feels is something both to shout about and campaign on.

The key elements of the Liverpool deal comprise:

  • A new Environmental Technology Zone, with the resulting growth in business rate income going to the LEP and five priority economic development areas (Mayoral Development Zones), and the Government prepared to add a further £75 million for economic development backed by a strong business case;
  • A Mayoral Investment Board to oversee the city’s economic and housing strategy, pooling Home & Communities Agency and other local land assets to drive economic growth;
  • Welfare Pilots, developed in collaboration with the Department for Work & Pensions, to deliver a programme of support for young people leaving the Work Programme, and a ‘Youth Contract’ pathfinder;
  • A Secondary School Investment Plan to build 12 new secondary schools, to help support the local economy and skills agenda.

The total package, according to the Council’s report, could bring the city close to £1 billion.  Multiplying up for Birmingham, with more than double Liverpool’s population, gives a number that will surely strike most people as rather more than “a few crumbs from the Westminster table” – to quote Lord Digby Jones’ recent dismissal of the value of a city mayor (Birmingham Post, March 1). Obviously, it would help mayoral campaigners and voters alike, if Ministers were prepared to support the policy they are pushing on cities with something more explicit and authoritative, but even now we have a lot more material to work with than just a few months ago.  


Chris Game

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The end of Winterval? Don’t bet on it.

The last Valentines have been sent, the last Chinese New Year firecrackers ignited, the last pantomime cast dispersed – even from Bradford’s glorious Alhambra, where Robin Hood was outlawing away well into February.  In short, Winterval is indubitably over, and here in Birmingham, just possibly, over for ever. Not, please note, over for good – not as far as I’m concerned, anyway. PR disaster though it became, I liked Winterval.

I liked it back in 1997, when it was launched by the then Labour City Council, for its brief two-year lifespan.  It seemed an imaginative, inclusive and surely innocuous idea.  And, 13 years later, it still does – notwithstanding that, towards the end of every one of those years, rent-a-quote Tory politicians, publicity-seeking church leaders, and our agenda-driven, fact-careless media have used Winterval myths to mock the alleged PCGM (Political Correctness Gone Mad) of Birmingham Council in particular and local government in general. For that’s what Winterval became: not just an innocent idea pointlessly destroyed, but a long-running urban myth.

Like most effective myths, Winterval was not totally invented. Rather, it started as an unremarkable, and largely unremarked, initiative, which subsequently gained folkloric status by continual exaggerated and distorted retelling. There never was any proposed ban by ‘barmy Brussels bureaucrats’ of straight, or any other shape of, bananas; but yes, there was a European Commission regulation categorising bananas partly by their curvature.

Similarly, Birmingham City Council never proposed renaming, demeaning, let alone abolishing or banning Christmas (as if it could). But yes, it did for two years use ‘Winterval’ – a conjunction of ‘Winter’ and ‘festival’ – as an umbrella marketing strategy to promote, collectively as well as individually, the numerous religious, secular and commercial events taking place over the three-month period from, in 1998/99, Halowe’en, Guy Fawkes Night and Diwali,  through the switching-on of the Christmas lights, the Frankfurt Christmas market, Advent, nativity plays and carol concerts, Hannukah, Ramadan and Eid, Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Year’s Eve, to the January sales and the Chinese/Lunar New Year, which in 1999 fell on 16th February.

It’s how, and how extensively, this actuality was distorted into the destructive and apparently unstoppable Winterval myth – “Birmingham rebrands Christmas” – that provides one reason for revisiting it here: not because it’s exceptional, but precisely because it isn’t.  Local government suffers at least as much from this alarmist myth regurgitation as the EU and the Health and Safety Executive. Both these bodies have tried everything to quash unfounded, and potentially scary, myths – from systematically documenting their falsity to producing website lists of the most bizarre – but still they’re regularly trotted out by lazy journalists or motivated malevolents.

Local government has faced the very same problems over the years – from Baa Baa Green Sheep and manhole-renaming allegations in the Loony Left 1980s to David Cameron’s imagined conker bans in school playgrounds.  The one unusual feature of Winterval is that, thanks largely to the diligence of media blogger and tweeter, Kevin Arscott, we have a comprehensive chapter-and-verse account of who the myth-perpetrators were, from which much of the following summary is taken.

 Before examining the myth, though, here are a few Winterval facts:

  1. Birmingham City Council (BCC) did not coin the term, but it was the first body to use it on a large scale. It was not devised to avoid offending, or following pressure from, Muslims or any other faith or non-faith groups, but, as noted above, as a marketing strategy, by the Council’s Head of Events, Mike Chubb.
  2. The first Winterval was over Christmas 1997/98. It was widely welcomed, enjoyed, judged successful, and not one critical media story was recorded.
  3. The first media attack on what proved the final Winterval – “a way of not talking about Christmas” and thereby offending “people of other faiths” – came in November 1998 from the then Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, in his diocesan Christmas message. The Bishop was quoted in the Birmingham Sunday Mercury as accusing BCC of censoring Christianity and “replacing Christmas”, which quickly went the 1998 equivalent of viral, becoming “cancelling” in The Sun and “renaming” elsewhere across a slaveringly receptive national media, ever on the look-out for cases of town hall PCGM. By the turn of the year, despite the Council’s repeated rebuttals, it had received the Irish Times’ ‘Clown of the Year award’ as “the city council that abolished Christmas”.  
  4. The extent of the “replacement” or whatever can be judged from the Council’s official poster. A blatant appeal to commercialism and materialism – certainly, and no doubt irksome to the Bishop. But surely even he might have conceded that sticking CHRISTMAS in a three-word headline and your alleged replacement in the bottom right-hand corner is an odd way of ‘not talking about’ something and announcing its cancellation.

It was, of course, not Christmas that was cancelled after 1998, but Winterval – although you’d never have guessed it. For the further into history Winterval itself receded, the greater the frequency with which the myth was recycled and embellished.  The dozen or so newspaper references a year from 1998 to 2004 have increased since 2005 to over 30. In the last two seasons alone, we have had, in addition to numerous ‘professional’ journalists, Jonathan Aitken, the Archbishop of York, Pope Benedict (“Pope’s Battle to save Christmas” from the depravities of Birmingham councillors – Daily Mail, 18 September, 2010), Lord (George) Carey, the Christian Institute, Frederick Forsyth, Eric Pickles and Ann Widdecombe: scrupulous fact-checkers all.

We have also had some additional twists, to keep the ball rolling. In 2004 The Sun started a ‘Don’t Sack Santa’ campaign, to restore Santa Claus to the Bullring shopping centre from which he’d never been excluded. Then the Royal Mail was dragged in, accused of ‘banning religion’ by omitting depictions of the Bible story from its Christmas stamps – by journalists evidently unaware of its policy of annually alternating between religious and non-religious themes.  

So who or what has been chiefly responsible for creating and so effectively sustaining the Winterval myth?  A combination of a carelessly ignorant bishop, sloppy journalism, and undue editorial deference to the pronouncements of church leaders, or is there something more sinister?  Kevin Arscott, documenter of these events, thinks there is. He traces how Bishop Santer’s initial, groundless suggestion that Winterval was introduced to avoid offending non-Christians has, particularly in recent years, become part of an ongoing campaign by sections of the media against political correctness, diversity, multi-culturalism, and the perceived Islamification of Britain.  The Winterval myth has been woven into an invented narrative that posits that Christianity and Christmas is under attack due to the intolerance of other faiths and ethnicities (in reality, Muslims), to create an inverse intolerance of other faiths and ethnicities.” (The Winterval Myth, p.4).     

Which brings me back to my opening paragraph and what must seem, in the light of those that followed, the rather odd suggestion that Winterval is over. Towards the end of last year, however, just as we were approaching the normal opening of the Winterval myth season, three things happened: one in itself unnoteworthy, but the other two really rather extraordinary.

First, the Daily Mail’s polemical columnist, Melanie Phillips, in a characteristic rant on PCGM, made one of her periodic references to how “Christmas has been renamed in various places ‘Winterval’”.  It was getting on for the 50th Mail article to have peddled this fiction, the single difference this time being Extraordinary Event No.1. The Mail, no doubt with the Leveson Inquiry in mind, was about to introduce a long overdue ‘Clarifications and Corrections’ policy.  Which eventually – after persistent pressure from blogs like Tabloid Watch and Minority Thought, reference to the Press Complaints Commission, much resistance from the paper, and blustering libel threats from Phillips – led to Extraordinary Event No.2.  It was 13 years late, will do nothing to undamage Birmingham’s reputation, and it must be doubted if the Mail was truly as “happy” as it claimed. But it did publish an actual apology, appended to a revision of Phillips’ column, “to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas”.

So that’s it. The Winterval myth is dead. No more Winterval fiction by the Mail, Phillips and their like. And if you believe that, well, you’ll believe anything!

Chris Game

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.