Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Great Debate

To the Arts Centre last night for the Northern Echo-organised debate on the Elected Mayor issue.

The Yes campaign were handing out flyers outside the meeting, and I privately cursed myself for not thinking of doing something similar. Given the high number of Yes campaign members and "fellow travellers" in the audience, however, I'm not sure that it would have made any difference.

The debate was chaired very fairly by Echo editor Pete Barron, who appealed at the start for active members of either campaign to declare their allegiance before they asked a question. Noticeably, two prominent Yes people (Shirley Winters and Nigel Boddy) flouted that rule.

I thought that both Alan Charlton and Stuart Hill spoke well for their respective campaigns. I was sitting with friends from the Labour Party, and we all had to smile when Stuart claimed that he wasn't a politician - Stuart was Labour's candidate in College in 1995, when we had a real chance of taking the ward off the Tories. Stuart was a useless candidate, who went AWOL for most of the campaign, and he never got selected for a winnable seat again. College has remained Tory ever since.

On the whole, the academic on the panel gave a balanced account of the elected Mayor experiment, although as I have become completely anoraky on the subject over the past year, I winced when he made some fairly basic factual mistakes. I was pleased to hear him say however that recent research indicates that elected Mayors, "haven't invigorated turnout or democracy."

The evening was dominated, of course, by Middlesbrough Mayor Ray Mallon. Ray stayed true to his expressed comments in his Echo column that an elected Mayor has immense power. If any town elected a Mayor minded to abuse that power, "he'll bring the town to its knees." He added that Darlington was facing a judgement call, "but it's all about the personality" which is one of my fundamental worries about the position.

There were quite a few of my Council colleagues there from all three parties, and I could imagine a collective thought bubble with the words "bloody hell" rising up as the true scale of Mallon's ego became apparent, and they thought about having someone like him in Darlington Of course, his self-belief is one of his best assets for a lot of people, and the position of elected Mayor tends to attract very macho characters. When someone in the audience asked him "so what do you do on an average day?" Ray was off on his favourite subject, and probably would have been talking now if Pete hadn't interrupted him.

He is, however, a very able man, and the best elected Mayor in the country by a mile. As a canny politician, he plays the "I'm not a politician" line beautifully. I hadn't known until recently that remarkably, the Mayor of Middlesbrough lives in Darlington, and he was very complimentary about the town, so we must be doing something right.

Not surprisingly, given the make-up of the audience, there was a majority at the end for the Yes's. The only vote that counts, however, takes place on Thursday...


Ian White, said...

Nick, you say "Not surprisingly, given the make-up of the audience, there was a majority at the end for the Yes's"
Why the make up? could the self righteous "NO's" not be bothered to turn up?
You cant blame us when your side dont put in an appearance!

However you are correct it is Thursday that will count (no punn)

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes...

I thought last night was a good night for democracy in Darlington.

What really stuck in my mind from last night was the message from Ray Mallon that all political parties are working together for the good of Middlesbrough. They all seem to be singing off the same songsheet. Which is what we should be aiming for in Darlington. Why can't we have that in Darlington?

Why can't the ruling party embrace and work with the views all parties and those people with no political affinities? Why do you have to denigrate and show a lack of respect for the views of other people who do not agree with your viewpoint?

The vast majority of people in the audience last night were not "fellow travellers" as you have posted. I resent that. They were the ordinary people of Darlington, like me, who care about democracy and that was shown in the vote at the end.

As someone who has not made up my mind and was present last night it was patently obvious to me that people want change and they want a voice in the government of this Borough.

Finally I am sorry I had to put the No spokesman on the ropes. I asked both sides for their vision of the future governance of Darlington. The question was very important. The yes spokesman gave me the answer I was looking for, but the no spokesman did not and was suspicious about his answer to the extent that I am forced to the conclusion that if the nos win on Thursday people will continue to be denied what is rightfully there's and that is a voice in the government of this town.

Anonymous said...

If there was a mjority of "Yes" people in the debate in Darlington, then just think how many would have been there if the debate had been in Hurworth, MSG, Neasham, Sadberge, where people are most hurting over the councils ability to listen. Roll on Thursday & bye bye Labour dictators grip on the town. Ha Ha Ha !!.

Darlington Councillor said...

Hmmm. Anonymous seems very confident of the outcome. I think he's a fool, and no-one can predict Thursday's result.

Ian - you make a fair point about one campaign being better organised as far as packing the audience was concerned. From a No campaign perspective, however, organising turnout there for me would have been a bit of a distraction when communication with the residents of the town is our priority.

(It was good to meet Michelle for the first time, by the way!)

Alan - you say that your question had Alan "on the ropes" and that Stuart gave you the answer you want to hear. Two points - consistently throughout this campaign, the Yes campaign have promised the earth without the slightest shred of evidence to back up their claims. The No campaign has taken the trouble to look long and hard at how elected Mayors actually work around the country, and in many places, as Ray Mallon acknowledged, the system has been found wanting.

I was proud of Alan last night - unlike Stuart and RM, he's not a politician, and has never been a member of a party. He simply sees the present system as the best possible of the options before us, and he articulated that view last night. He's not a political hack or an insider, and all the better for it.

For sure, if other No supporters, such as Charles Johnson or Mike Barker or even myself had been answering the questions, we could have given very eloquent answers stressing the need for change within the current system - albeit that our answers would have been rather different. So don't criticise the No campaign's leadership simply because it's apolitical - for me, that's its chief attraction.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes....

Sorry Nick, but you have not answered my question. What sort of government can we expect if the Nos win on Thursday?

I was not criticising the No campaign. I was pointing out that I was uneasy with the answer I received.

You must admit bringing people together to debate the issues which confront them does give a valuable perspective on these issues which tends to be rather limited in the hallowed halls of the Council Chamber. Perhaps a State of the Borough annual debate should be instituted. What do you think?

Darlington Councillor said...

And I was probably seeming a bit shifty because there isn't a "No" line on this. The campaign is made up of councillors and members of each of the three main parties, and people with no politics at all. Thursday's vote is about the wisdom of introducing an elected Mayor to Darlington, and we are united in our opposition to that.

As for the future - well, there was some constructive and passionate debate taking place on the very issue you raise in the bar after the Echo event, certainly amongst the No people. What I think I can say is that all the political parties on the Council, and the independent member too, want the Council to be more open and accountable - the message on the doorstep in May has been heard loud and clear. Some small steps have been taken already. I think there's loads more to be done, however, and there's a special scrutiny process looking at this now.

For me the fundamental question is this - how can concentrating all Town Hall power in the hands of one man assist the process of decentralisation and better communication? For me, the leap in the dark which an elected Mayor represents is going in entirely the wrong direction.

Darlington Councillor said...

By the way - a State of the Borough debate sounds interesting. How do you think it could work?

Anonymous said...

In light of last nights excellent debate it would seem prudent for the Labour Cabinet to continue the good work started by Peter Baron and hold a quarterly public debate. This would make you more visible and accessible to the public. Not easy but if you are certain that your decisions are robust then surely you can demonstrate this to the public through debate.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes...


The Mayor has a State of the Borough debate. I think each year where he presents his annual report, warts and all, to the people of Hartlepool. What has gone right, what hasn't and the direction the Council is taking.

The meeting is held in the Council Chamber at Civic Centre. The public are invited, they contribute and question the Mayor, Caninet and Chief Officers on any manner of subjects from what's being done about flooding to why hasn't my bins been emptied.

The downside, and I am not sure it is a downside, is only about 40 residents turn up.

Might be worth a try.