It is difficult to overstate how the mayoralty has changed the face of local politics. You would be hard pushed to find a Stokie who hasn't got an opinion about the mayor. Wolfe's and Meredith's actions have been open to wider scrutiny than was ever the case with the old council leader. If more people are thinking about Stoke politics, then that's a good thing isn't it? Not really. The establishment of the mayoralty gutted the council chamber of its decision making powers and concentrated it in the hands of the mayor and the unelected council manager. The former withered to become a glorified committee for rubber-stamping the decisions of the latter, and these decisions have almost without fail been a diet of cuts, job losses and privatisation.
However, this situation cannot continue. The government has called time on this experiment in local "democracy" and requires Stoke adopts one of two systems by May 2009. A return to a leader elected by councillors plus a cabinet, or mayor and cabinet. In addition an 'independent' governance commission has returned a damning report on Stoke's 'broken' system and has outlined 14 recommendations for renewing local democracy.
All these issues were the topic of a Radio Stoke-organised debate tonight with a specially invited audience of "stake holders". On the panel were Stoke Central MP, Mark Fisher, Staffs Uni boss and report co-author, Christine King, Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley, leader of the Potteries Alliance and a spokesperson for the anti-mayor Democracy 4 Stoke, Staffs Uni politics prof Mick Temple and Mark Meredith himself. With plenty of oppositionist councillors and some mayor supporters in the audience, the scene was set for a potentially combustible exchange of views.
The first question came from Ted Owen, also of the Potteries Alliance. He asked if the panellists found anything particularly objectionable in the report's recommendations. PKB replied that he wasn't too keen on point seven, which calls for the strengthening of political party machinery in the city, which he thought was one of the few things local politics didn't need. He also took issue with the report for blanket blaming everyone on the council for Stoke's woes - the responsibility lay with the mayor and the manager. MM tried to wriggle out of getting tarred with the blame brush by attacking the council for failing to take "tough decisions" in the past. MT suggested the report did not go far enough - he would like to see four yearly unitary elections. This allows for better long term planning and will boost turn out, as, in his opinion, the current system of annual contests "alienates" voters. Speaking in the report's defence, CK said its recommendations were based on the widest possible consultation with local people. Specifically on the party issue, she said respondents felt they did not know the difference between the main parties any more. The report's invitation to stronger party organisation is about making the distinctions clearer.
On behalf of N Staffs TUC, Jason Hill asked how seriously can we expect the government to take local democracy when they will only allow two options in any referendum? Unfortunately, everyone saw it fit to ignore the comrade's question and answer something completely different. MM chose to harp on about party responsibility to local democracy and MF celebrated the council chamber's representation drawn from nine parties (including the BNP?). PKB, still thinking he was answering the previous question attacked the mainstream parties for being of one mind on all the big issues, such as MM's plans to close schools and push through city academies. MT went further and suggested parties should be banned from standing in local elections all together(!) He argued if this was the case independently elected councillors would be required to stand on their records and not their rosette. This would give us a city governed in the interests of everyone, apparently. In my opinion, such touching political naivete (coming from a politics professor!) is a recipe for a beauty contest, not an election.
Thankfully, Matt Taylor of Stoke Radical Press repeated Jason's question, and drew attention to the absurdity of the referendum. At the moment it looks as if the government will determine what option will be put forward to a referendum. Whatever this option is - council leader plus cabinet or mayor plus cabinet - if it is rejected the fall back position will be ... an elected mayor plus cabinet! You couldn't make it up! At least on this point the panel were united in their opposition to this absurdity.
Among other contributions, Harry Brunt of Staffs Parish Councillors' Association offered another alternative arrangement for Stoke's local democracy: a parishing of the city, which would bring representatives closer to the people. MT agreed but also argued for a repatriation of powers to the council that have been delegated to unelected quangos, and was also for devolving some budgetry powers to more local levels. He did not elaborate on how dispersing power away from the centre of the council would sit with the tendency to centralise it around the mayor+cabinet model he favoured. MF favoured compulsory voting, which of course is more likely to alienate than engage. MM's response to all this was to reiterate his 'strong leadership' mantra. He argued clear leadership at the top was necessary for 'enterprising ideas', an example of which was ... the imminent mass mail out of the mayor's top tips of dealing with climate change.
It is tempting to treat this issue and all the shenanigans around it as a waste of time. After all, aren't there more pressing matters facing Stoke than constitutional tinkering? Dismissing it as such would be a serious mistake. Not only is the mayoralty a hot issue one regularly encounters on stalls and the doorsteps, it is an opportunity for socialists. When the political establishment is debating about how best to govern us, we need to put forward our own independent positions as a means of mobilising working class people around their interests. As far as Stoke Socialist Party are concerned, we are opposed to presidential mayors on principle. Direct election strips away any kind of accountability the mayor has to their councillor colleagues and gives them enormous power to impose their will in the face of council opposition. The council leader and cabinet system is deeply problematic and is prone to party manipulation and cronyism, but it is more amenable to popular pressure from below in between elections. That is why we will be supporting this option in any referendum.