Wednesday, 25 April 2012

'Yes' to a Mayor who says 'No' to Austerity

The referendum on a Mayor for Birmingham has not exactly set the city alight with political debate. It isn’t hard to see why.

I look from the ‘Yes’ campaign to the ‘No’ campaign, and all I see are the same old politicians; the very people who have failed this city for so long.

It isn’t only that they are all equally uninspiring, although they are. It isn’t, either, that the contest is in danger of being dominated by middle-aged men – although some might say that these particular men have had enough chances to play the civic leader already without any great success.

No, what really bothers me is the complete vacuum when it comes to radical thinking. Birmingham is a youthful and diverse city. We were once a city of thousand trades, known around the world. We are now a city of many cultures that could - and should – see itself as an international city, open to the world. Instead, we risk a future as a provincial backwater, with economic decline slowly eating away at the ties that bind our people together.

It is increasingly urgent that someone stands up to the suffocating consensus that insists there is no alternative to economic austerity at home, and war abroad. Austerity isn’t working. Its consequences, including the lengthening unemployment queues and the destruction of our public services, will leave our city as a shadow of its former self. Youth unemployment in particular is a scandal of epic proportions that threatens all of our futures. Yet, every day, we see jobs disappear along with the education and training services that might sustain some hope in our young people.

This is what the campaign for a Birmingham Mayor should be about, but isn’t. In Birmingham’s heyday, civic leaders had vision. Sadly, the very libraries, parks, museums, and public services they bequeathed are now under threat from a city leadership that is tired and worn out.

There are good arguments for opposing a Birmingham Mayor. A great deal of power will be concentrated in the hands of one person, and that comes with dangers. The Mayor will be able to bypass a lot of the scrutiny and oversight that is part of our current system. But politics in Birmingham simply isn’t working in its current form. The idea, in particular, that our current crop of councillors really hold the Leader to account is laughable. We need to shake things up.

I sat in the Council Chamber when the budget was decided a year ago. I had spoken to anti-cuts protestors outside, and could hear the echo of their voices inside the council chamber. Some Labour councillors had given their support to the protests too. But safely ensconced in the Council House, they simply sat there while the budget was voted through – not one of them even joining me to raise a hand against a budget of decline and failure.

This is the reality of our current system. I can’t remember the last time our City Council has been anything more than a cosy club in which dodgy deals are struck behind closed doors by the same old faces. Local councillors are already powerless.

We are faced with an uncomfortable choice. We could stick with the system that gives power to the party fixers, and rewards the conformist. Or we can take the risk of electing a Mayor who would, at least, owe their position to the whole electorate; a focus for democratic political debate and campaigning across the city.

There is a lesson we might learn from Bradford. George Galloway won support from right across the city – young and old; black, white and Asian - because he tells it like it is. It was a slap in the face for the old parties who take their voters for granted. It was a victory for someone prepared to speak out against the rotten policies of economic austerity and war.

We will keep our options open in terms of standing a Respect candidate for Mayor. But the current front runners aren't offering anything to inspire a city like Birmingham. Hundreds of thousands of people are looking for someone to challenge the political consensus, and to stand up for our vital public services. This is the kind of political debate that Birmingham needs.

I will vote ‘Yes’ to a Mayor. But neither the ‘Yes’ nor the ‘No’ campaigns are speaking for me, or many others like me. More of the same is not an option. It is time to debate radical ideas that put people at the heart of the city's future.