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. 


18 Responses to “Choices, choices”

  1. Kronikal October 15, 2020 at 18:59 #

    Hurrah – politics is back. No more soggy muffins or lazy cows!
    And with background information on other boroughs contemplating changing system too, to give more context.
    Marvellous – all is forgiven 😉

  2. Kronikal October 15, 2020 at 21:20 #

    So Labour councillors are deciding among themselves what system to put up against the current one – how typical. No suggestion they should consult with other parties, then, for example – or the public of course. Bet they didn’t even think of that. No, they’ll just stitch it up in their own interest, as usual.

    • Kronikal October 18, 2020 at 16:03 #

      The October 2019 post on the People’s Petition actually says, of the choice between alternative systems to be offered to voters, “These should be consulted on rather than councillors simply saying what they want.”
      This was when discussing the legal position the councillors had been told of, as to why their decision to have a referendum wasn’t legally sufficient to allow it to happen. Although the linked council document detailing this admits this isn’t strictly a requirement, unfortunately.

      • Martin Warne October 19, 2020 at 16:31 #

        I think the ‘Democracy and Civic Participation Commission’ was meant to be the consultation. It did us no favours buy failing to recommend an alternative to the mayoral system that could be put on the ballot. In the absence of that, it’s hard to see what else councillors could do to determine what it should be.

      • Kronikal October 19, 2020 at 20:12 #

        Ah, I see.
        Well then, they could still consult other political parties formally.
        And anyway, they could distill opinions on alternative systems from the responses to the Democracy Commission.

  3. Kronikal October 18, 2020 at 08:41 #

    It mentions campaigns in a couple of authority areas to change the system to a different system, such that all 3 campaigns want a different system! But this is unsurprising, as most people tend to think their council works badly, so assume a different system might work better, and voters will have a tendency to vote for anything but the current system, based on their experience of their own council being awful.
    But it’ll probably carry on being badly run 🙄 after changing it, in each case. This is depressing – but at least it helps send the message to our leaders that we’re not impressed by how things work now: like alternating Labour & Tory governments at successive general elections demonstrates discontent with whoever was last in. So I still think it’s worth changing – in each case 😜. If more councils chopped & changed, and often, it would send a message that we’re restless for something better.

    • Martin Warne October 19, 2020 at 16:36 #

      My view, which I’ve posted about before here, is that the best way to reform local government to make it more responsive to residents’ needs is proportional representation. About a third of Newham voters vast their ballots for other parties, but have no political representation on the council. That does not strike me as fair or democratic. And there are strong Tory areas where Labour voters miss out.

      • Kronikal October 19, 2020 at 18:26 #

        I’ve now noticed the original People’s Petition post of a year ago is mentioned above as a related article – it links to the legal document by Daniel Fenwick (who was mentioned in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs the other week, BTW, for unrelated reasons). This makes it clear that councils can suggest to the government their own idea for an alternative to the executive mayor, rather than use a version of one of the two other standard types – although no-one so far has.

        So your mentioning PR makes me wonder if changing the electoral system might be a potentially-allowed element of the alternative system for putting up against the status quo in a referendum! !?

      • Martin Warne October 19, 2020 at 18:28 #

        No, changing the voting system would require legislation. Sadly, I don’t see this government even considering it.

      • Kronikal October 19, 2020 at 18:30 #

        Rats 😠

      • Alan Griffiths October 23, 2020 at 13:11 #

        STV would create a marginal seat in every ward.

      • Kronikal October 24, 2020 at 19:21 #

        Oh yes, so it would !
        Maybe you think that’s a bad thing?
        It would be brilliant for *voters* – there’d actually be much more of a *point* in voting – there’d be real jeopardy for the Newham establishment 😃. Politics in Newham would come alive 🎇🎉
        The comatose Recorder would have to follow it more in the run-up to polling day, not just run parties’ spiel the day before. People who fancy being a councillor, without any strong political leanings, wouldn’t have to automatically gravitate to Labour, further sucking those from the borderlands between parties away from all the opposition.
        And councillors would have to be interested in finding out in detail what policies etc the people actually want! – what’s not to like! 😆

  4. Kronikal October 18, 2020 at 15:48 #

    But why did these People’s Petition people bother in the first place? (And they wasted their time anyway – they should have found out that it wouldn’t be valid during the current Covid restrictions for a start.)
    The mayor had consistently given an assurance that it would be held by next year, and it’s been known for months that it couldn’t happen this year.
    Did they have some reason to distrust the mayor?

    A post here from last October talks about it, explaining that it’s people to the left of Rokhsana behind it, pointing out how confusing it will be to have 4 different kinds of ballot paper if held at the same time as the London elections, and consequent political disadvantages for Labour. And it ends:

    “Why are these Labour members organising a petition?
    Now, there you’ve got me… ”

    So has anyone discovered in the meantime, why they bothered?

  5. Birdman October 19, 2020 at 15:04 #

    I have experienced elected Mayors and Cabinets, strong leader and cabinets and the committee system. In many ways it doesn’t matter as it is down to the abilities and integrity of councillors and a system of scrutiny that is vigorous and independent. The downside of the Mayor or strong leader model is the ability of the unscrupulous leader to buy loyalty through special responsibility allowances and also a behind the scenes vetting of potential councillors. In Newham I saw for my own eyes very good Councillors being sidelined or refused selection as they would not kow tow to the leader. On the other hand, in Cambridgeshire, I have seen a committee system lead to very slow decision making resulting in projects being brought to a standstill.

    Whatever system is adopted, and I no longer have a vote in Newham, it starts and finishes with the political parties selecting honest, able and hardworking candidates for election. Too often that hasn’t been the case and I do wonder whether the huge amount of allowances on offer have been a catalyst for money grabbers rather than people who want to work for the community. Quite frankly the cvs of a few labour councillors in Newham over the last two decades have read like those of the worst type of Tory landlords and businesses. At least one who started on the left of the party made a bundle in allowances, bought a good place to live through a scheme that only those in power seemed to know about and then stood down when the gravy train stopped. Nothing illegal there but not up to the standards that labour supporters have the right to expect.

    Whatever options are proposed are irrelevant unless Newham Labour continues to clean its act up but looking at some of the tired old faces on the Council I have no confidence it will.

    • Martin Warne October 19, 2020 at 16:28 #

      Agree with all off this 👍

    • Alan Griffiths October 22, 2020 at 16:51 #

      Between 2018 and March 2020, most Labour Branches in East Ham, as well as West Ham, met regularly (which is required by Labour’s rules).

      • Kronikal October 24, 2020 at 19:24 #

        I haven’t managed to work out what that point is in response to – by Birdman or anyone else! 🤔

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