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A clearer explanation of elected mayors gets my vote

On 3 May, along with nine other English cities, Bristol will be holding a referendum on whether it wants an elected mayor. I was recently asked to take part in a debate taking a position one way or the other, so I thought I’d better form an opinion pronto. The council sent out leaflets meant to impartially explain what the decision means but, like thousands of other Bristol households, we didn’t receive one and instead of addressing the problem they’ve just blamed the post office.

The quickest way to find the leaflet online is on the ‘no’ campaign website but I don’t know if it’s worth the pixels it’s written on because Greg Clarke, Conservative minister for cities, has discredited the information supplied to Bristol voters and is refusing to pay for it. Maybe he found it on the ‘no’ campaign website too?

So, I started digging into the ‘yes’ and ‘no ‘campaigns, looking for sound advice and clear opinions. But every debate is riddled with political mudslinging, conspiracy theorising, petty back biting and fear mongering. Both the yes and the no campaigns seem to be riddled with rabid lunatics out to discredit the opinion of anyone who disagrees with them, but maybe that’s what counts as debate in the Twitter age?

Looking further afield I find that Leicester has embraced the change and their mayor has sacked the chief exec and taken over the role on a salary equal to an MP. As the chief exec of Bristol earns £190k, while MPs earn £65k, this would save lots of money and rid us of a post that many in this city abhor: I like the prospect of this. However, Stoke on Trent has decided to get rid of its elected mayor and go back to a cabinet system, fearing the concentration of too much power in one person’s hands and that councillors’ roles have been undermined: I don’t like the prospect of that.

In the end I declined the invite to speak because I simply cannot make up my mind.

That the Lib Dem leader of our council is campaigning against a mayor makes me instinctively want to vote in favour of one; no one outside of her party cares whether she can save her uncharismatic backside. But, because the Tory government is forcing this referendum on us, my instincts swing the other way and I want to vote against a mayor.

Although Greg Clark denies he’s bribing us into a yes vote, in a recent public debate in Bristol he stated: ‘In order to justify giving millions of pounds for transport, for example, I can’t say we’re going to give it to a city with the current system where the leadership changes every year. In order to devolve powers we have to have confidence – an elected mayor meets that test.’ Bristol has had seven different administrations in the past eight years – does he mean us?

Deciding might be easier if we had some idea who might stand for mayor; so far everyone is being a bit coy. Personalities shouldn’t matter, but not many people are interested in what an elected mayor might mean to the mechanics of scrutiny committees and the technicalities of council bureaucracy. However, people would like to understand what sort of leadership a mayor might offer and a list of candidates would help us to get a feel for what we could end up with. A non-political figure at the helm would be very tempting for Bristolians sick of the tawdry politicking that holds this city back and makes decision making practically impossible.

Something all sides agree on is the need to change how local elections are held. Bristol has elections by thirds, that is elections in three years out of four, in which a third of councillors stand, but never both candidates from one ward at the same time. The only benefit of this for Bristolians is that once every four years we don’t have to try and work out whether there’s an election in our ward thus relieving our brains of trying to grapple with just what this ridiculous system is supposed to achieve. The benefit for political parties is that there’s never the danger that we might vote the lot out in one big hit when they fail us yet again.

This causes chronic instability and makes councillors afraid to make bold decisions because there’s always an election on the horizon. We suffer one hung council after another, with deals being done between unnatural bed fellows, mainly in order to wrongfoot whoever has the majority rather than to further the interests of the city. Whichever way we vote the council wins.

This month councillors decided to consult on all-out elections and one can only assume they’re hoping that if we think might get them then we’ll vote no to an elected mayor. Given that this change has been resisted for many years it smacks of desperation that they’re finally agreeing to discuss it now.

At the moment I’m with another lost soul I spotted looking for inspiration among the rabid ramblings of the yes/no campaigns, ‘democracy only really works if all of the electors have all of the information and I’m as clueless as the next person it seems. I’ll just have to vote out of hope, not wisdom’.

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