Archive | October, 2020

Voting for Change

28 Oct

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Following a decision by Newham Council last Wednesday, the residents of Newham will have the opportunity to make a democratic decision about how they are governed, in the long-awaited referendum on local government.

The referendum will take place on 6th May 2021, at the same time as the London Assembly and London Mayor elections. The question on the ballot will ask Newham voters to choose between a council run by an executive Mayor and a cabinet, or a committee system made up of committees of elected councillors. This is a genuine choice between an executive model, in which decisions are made by the Mayor and a small group of councillors who make up the Cabinet, and a real alternative where all decisions are agreed by committees made up of elected councillors.

A campaign in favour of the committee system has already been launched. Newham Voting for Change is made up of Newham residents and councillors.

In a statement the group said that it welcomes the council’s decision that the choice on the ballot paper will be between the Mayoral model and the committee system.

Speaking for Newham Voting for Change, Cllr John Whitworth said: “The Mayor promised this referendum as part of her manifesto in 2018 and we’re very pleased that the date and the ballot question have now been confirmed. Newham voters will get a meaningful choice between the current system and a more open, inclusive and democratic system in which all councillors get a say in determining Council policy.”

Another spokesperson for the campaign, Josephine Grahl, said: “We set up Newham Voting for Change to make the positive arguments for the committee system: a co-operative, democratic system which gives a stronger voice to the elected councillors and residents of Newham. This is a real alternative to the Mayoral model and we hope Newham residents will support our campaign.”

The campaign has set up a website, a Twitter feed and a Facebook page.

It will come as no great surprise to regular readers of this blog but, in the interests of disclosure and transparency, I am supporting Newham Voting for Change.

Choices, choices

15 Oct

The much-anticipated referendum on the future governance of the borough is going to happen next May. 

Rokhsana Fiaz confirmed her commitment to this in an interview with the OnLondon blog, saying it would enable her to honour her manifesto pledge that a referendum would be held “before the end of my third year as Mayor.” 

Local authority governance referendums must offer voters a choice between the area’s existing model – in Newham’s case, the directly elected mayor – and one government-approved alternative. After the Democracy and Civic Participation Commission failed to recommend what that should be, a working party of Newham Council Labour group members convened to consider the options. Their findings were due to be voted on by Labour group last night. Whatever was agreed will  go forward for formal determination at the next full council meeting on 23 October.

So what are the options?

The so-called ‘People’s Petition’ campaign, which was run by a company based out of the house of Labour councillor Suga Thekkeppurayil and promoted by East Ham Labour chair Tahir Mirza, wanted the Leader and Cabinet model. This is sometimes also called the ‘Strong Leader’ model. Under this arrangement the council leader has powers similar to those of a directly elected mayor, but instead of being elected by the voters he or she is appointed by councillors from among their own number. The leader serves for four years, unless removed by a vote of no confidence by full council.

Executive power is held by the leader and the cabinet they appoint, with other councillors having little or no influence (does that sound familiar?)

This is arguably less democratic than the current situation. Now, party members – Labour, Conservatives, Greens and Lib Dems – across the borough select their candidates and the voters make their choice. Under the ‘strong leader’ model, only councillors get a say and the winner is whoever is backed by the largest faction within their political group. Assuming Labour retains 100% of the seats in 2022, just 34 councillors out of 66 will decide who’s in charge.

In Croydon, campaigners want a referendum to switch from this kind of ‘strong leader’ to a directly elected mayor. They argue that a mayor elected by the people will be more attentive to the needs of voters across the whole borough and more accountable. Perhaps in a borough that has a clear Labour/Tory split that will prove to be the case; in one-party Newham, it certainly wasn’t.

The other option is the committee system. Councils run on this model make most decisions in committees, which must be balanced according to the size of each party in the Council (not a huge issue in Newham right now). The Council Leader is appointed by full Council, but has no executive powers and the chairs of the committees are elected by the councillors. 

Campaigners in Sheffield are organising a petition to move away from the ‘strong leader’ model to a ‘modern committee system’. They say the current model excludes the majority of councillors from decision-making, asking “What is the point of voting if your councillor has no power?” They argue that a committee-based system will empower all councillors to do the job voters elect them to do. Councillors will have to work together to make decisions and cooperate to do the best for the city.

This option removes the idea of a ‘strong leader’ – be that a directly elected mayor or a council leader – and requires councillors to do the work collaboratively. Perhaps most importantly in Newham, it requires all councillors to do some work.

We will know in a week or so which alternative to the current model we can choose. 

Magical misty morning

9 Oct


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