In 2020 we can abandon the directly-elected Mayor system (if we can be trusted to)

Directly-elected Mayors in Tower Hamlets have done as much for democracy as the film ‘Jaws’ did for swimming.

In 1975 an up-and-coming director by the name of Mr. S. Spielberg released only his second movie about a very big and nasty fish that terrorised an American summer resort town. All over the planet people queued to buy cinema tickets (yes, you had to leave home to watch films then) in exchange for the promise of being scared silly.

Yum! Lunch!

The horror film wrapped inside an adventure film had such an impact on audiences that many were afraid to swim in the sea – or even their local swimming pool.

It would be stretching this metaphor to argue that the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ experience of directly-elected Mayors is a horror film inside an adventure film.

Let’s just settle on the experience being a horror film that occasionally turns into a farce (‘A Fish Called Wanda’ comes to mind and it persists the fish thread).

After the first directly-elected Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, was kicked out of office in 2015 LW proposed the idea of completely abolishing the position of directly-elected Mayor in Tower Hamlets.

Unfortunately the directly-elected Mayor system has much in common with STDs. Easy to get, difficult to get rid of. One reason is that due process has to be followed.

The directly-elected Mayor system can only be challenged 10 years after being created. Which is 2020 or next year as some have started to call it.

The first challenge is that 5%* or more of the borough electorate need to sign a petition in favour of demanding that a referendum on continuing to have the directly-elected Mayor system be held. *Just over 15,000 people based on 2018 population figures of 317,200 (PDF).

Then the referendum has to be held just like any other local election. What could possibly go wrong with a referendum?

The relevant legislation on Directly-elected Mayors can be read here in the House of Commons Library (PDF). and here are some key snippets.

“2 Referendums and time limits Under the 2000 Act… any local authority wishing to establish a mayoralty required a ‘yes’ vote in a local referendum. The 2007 Act changed this, permitting local authorities to adopt a mayor by resolution. However, an authority can still choose to hold a referendum on the issue. Alternatively, authorities can be obliged to hold a mayoral referendum if 5% or more of the local electorate sign a petition demanding one (see section 3). The Government may also compel an authority to hold a referendum. The result of a mayoral referendum is binding on a local authority.The Localism Act 2011 permitted a referendum to be held on abolishing an elected mayor, subject to time limits; and for a referendum to be held on establishing a leader and cabinet, or on using the committee system. Four authorities have held referendums on whether to retain their mayoral system. Electors in Doncaster (3 May 2012) and Middlesbrough (26 September 2013) voted to retain their elected mayor, whilst those in Hartlepool (15 Nov 2012) voted to replace it with the committee system, and those in Stoke-on-Trent (23 Oct 2008) voted to replace it with a leader and cabinet system.

Authorities which have changed their governance arrangements as a result of a referendum can only make a further change following a further referendum. Where a local authority has held a referendum on its governance arrangements, a further referendum may not be held for ten years (five years in Wales). Conversely, where a mayor has been created by resolution of the council, five years must elapse before the council may resolve to abolish the mayor. However, there is no time limit on holding a referendum (whether initiated by the council or by a petition) to reverse a decision made by a resolution.”

All clear? Good.

For some odd reason the only political organisation which seems keen on abolishing the DEM thing is Tower Hamlets Momentum.

Indeed so keen is Momentum that they have established a cheap and not very cheerful website ‘Bring Back Democracy – Scrap the Mayoral System’ which talks about getting rid of the Mayor. Of Lewisham. The initiative does seem to have the back of The Association of Millwall Supporters which is always a good sign.

LW thinks Momentum sent us an email about their burning desire to improve democracy in Tower Hamlets by ditching the DEM system some time back. We ignored it.

Why did we ignore it? Same reason we would ignore any other political party in the borough who started to evangelise about the horrors of DEMs. We don’t not trust them. None of them. Not left, not centre, not right. It’s just easier.

To be fair we distrust left-wing parties the most. This is based on close scrutiny of Tower Hamlets Labour, Tower Hamlets First, Aspire, Independent during the last five years.

Coughing fit right here

Unfortunately LW has never had the chance to scrutinise Respect, before our time, which would be handy now as our understanding has long been that Respect, er, organised the original petition for a DEM and then, er, organised the 2010 vote for a DEM which led to Lutfur Rahman being, er, elected as the first DEM.

Please find and replace ‘er’ in previous paragraph with rigged / corrupted / fixed / manipulated according to your personal whim.

When storming the barricades Horace was pleasantly surprised to discover just how many other Labour councillors were Momentum members.”

Seems TH Momentum (should we burst into a chorus of the Red Flag here? No? Optional? Great, thanks Comrade!) is still very excited about having an anti-DEM campaign as Moley hears of meetings to set up a group, constitutions, limited companies, a Chief Exec, discuss issue of registering with the Information Commissioner, petition wording, officers, and of course storming the Winter Palace. (We made the last one up. Maybe).

Quite why TH Momentum are bothering with all this LW is not quite sure as the recent damning report by the Electoral Commission into TH Momentum’s casual approach to the whole electoral laws thing is a cast-iron guarantee that the Electoral Commission will never allow it to be entrusted with anything more than… than… well, nothing probably.

Not that the Electoral Commission or anyone in the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government (DHCLG) should trust any political organisation in Tower Hamlets with having anything to do with a possible petition and referendum on abolishing the DEM system.

How many coppers is robust enough?

It’s just asking for trouble. Due to our wonderfully robust electoral procedures (or six hundred coppers on duty as we like to say) Tower Hamlets can just about hold elections. Just. When we can do the election thing without the mass police oversight thing then we might be able to claim democracy has returned to the borough but not before.

Our 2015 story has a final comment by then Labour candidate for directly-elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs defending the DEM system. He proposed it could be safeguarded by highlighting its frailties, volunteering safeguards and ensuring a culture of openness. He concludes however that:

“When the time comes a referendum can be sought to abolish it if that’s what people want.”

Quite how we work out if that’s what people want is the tricky bit.


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