Thursday, December 07, 2006

Damp squib

I went along to the meeting organised by the Mayoral Referendum Campaign this evening at the Quaker Meeting House in Skinnergate. On reflection, I rather wish I'd stayed at home and wrapped presents.

Turnout was poor - I counted 37 people in the audience, of whom at least 12 were "the usual suspects" (I count myself in that number by the way). Councillors or candidates in May's poll made up a sizeable proportion of the audience. This after a full page advert in a recent Northern Echo (and how much could that have cost?)

The panel was made up of a member of "Unlock Democracy", a campaigning front for the New Politics Network, who are unashamed cheerleaders for the elected Mayor principle; the Mayor of Hartlepool Stuart Drummond; and representatives from the three main political parties in Darlington.

My Labour ward colleague Cllr. David Lyonette addressed some of the dilemmas and doubts about the new system, drawing on dissatisfaction with elected Mayors where they have been created elsewhere in the country. Cllr. Tony Richmond for the Tories sat on the fence, I thought, pledging that a hypothetical Tory ruling Group after next May would do things very differently. Ian Barnes for the LibDems was more thoughtful, however, suggesting that the current system could be tweaked to widen public participation without the need to sweep away our ceremonial non-political Mayor. Ian also looked how an elected Mayor might work for Darlington too, so he gave a balanced address.

I chipped in at the end - in a personal capacity as neither the Labour Group nor the Constituency Party has expressed a view on an elected Mayor one way or the other.

Tellingly, when the meeting closed, I didn't see anyone go up to the front to sign the petition - not because there was any shortage of referendum supporters in the sudience, but I guess as just about everyone who backed the idea had already put pen to paper. With so few genuinely uncommitted people in the room, I don't think many minds were changed one way or the other.


James Graham said...

For the record, neither the New Politics Network nor Unlock Democracy (our joint campaign with Charter 88) have a specific position on elected mayors. What we do believe however is that people should be given a greater say in the way their own local authorities are run, and that no single system should be assumed to work everywhere.

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks for that James.

In fairness, Emily made a similar point during the meeting.

She was however relentlessly positive about the elected Mayor initiative throughout the meeting, which gave us a clue as to where the sympathies of your organisation probably lie....

Best wishes,


Fay Lucas said...

In fairness Nick, I think that probably the main reason for the low turnout was that nobody seemed to know the meeting was on. I think they advertised it in the wrong media, people just don't buy the 'Labour biased' Northern Echo anymore.


Darlington Councillor said...

Many thanks for visiting my blog, Fay, and leaving a comment. I intend to continue posting on the salaried Mayor debate as it evolves in Darlington.

I think you do have a point about the lack of publicity for the meeting, although at the same time the Referendum Group did take out a full page ad in the Echo recently about the debate - unprecedented in my experience. It must have cost a deal of cash. Who paid for this I wonder?

Regarding bias at the Echo, in fact both the main political parties at times get worked up about the leanings of various Echo journalists (I've blogged on this myself) but for the most part the Echo is one of the most balanced local newspapers in the country. The last figures I saw suggested that about 20% of people in Darlington said that they got their information about what was going on in the town from its pages, which is a pretty good reach.

For whatever reason, then, the meeting simply didn't fire the imagination of the people of the town. This could explain why the numbers signing up in the petition has crept forward with what seems to me to be painfully slow progress.

Best wishes,


Ian White said...

Nick would you think the salaried mayor as you call him/her get £10K to waste on a car? Or would you think they would spend that money more prudently? the obvious question is if you answer no to the first part, why is "your" Mayor allowed to?

Darlington Councillor said...

The Echo article didn't say that the Mayor wasted £10k on a car, Ian - Eleanor said that perhaps one time in ten journies the car takes her to the Town Hall.

Overwhelmingly the car is used to transport her or the Deputy Mayor to functions around the Borough or to events in the region. I think it's pretty good value for money, and replicated by every other town with a ceremonial Mayor that I know of (simply look at the Town Hall forecourt during the Mayor's Ball to see how other Mayors travel).

By the way, the article said (from memory) that other Councillors can use the car to attend functions - so to answer what may be your next question, no - I have never travelled in the Mayor's car!