13 January 2007

Bring Back Democracy Campaign

After this morning's surgery I joined others in Lewisham collecting signatures for the Bring Back Democracy campaign. To save you the bother of looking up the website the two key aims of the campaign are:
  1. To establish a referendum on whether Lewisham should continue to have a Directly Elected Mayor.
  2. If the first aim is acheived to campaign to replace the Mayoral system with a more democratic system.

The campaign has attracted a lot of attention...it has generated cross party support in the Council and certainly from my experience on Lewisham High Street this morning it has the potential to galvanise a lot of people into positive action to restore some of the democratic accountability that was lost in the October 2001 referendum where despite using an all-postal ballot the turnout was low and the margin in favour of the democratically elected Mayor was narrow. This could be why Lewisham residents are seem quite keen to have a look once again at how decisions are made in Lewisham.

The campaign has another slogan "Scrap the Mayor". This certainly catches the attention of people in the streets, but has the danger of mixing up principled ideas about how the best decisions are made, with personal or party rivalry against the current mayor. Even if we had a Green Mayor...then he/she would back the 'Bring Back Democracy' campaign as would my party and me too. Further to remove the current Mayor from office on the basis of a referendum about his post rather than his performance would be an affront to democracy and would not gain my support. Greens support the power of a community to recall elected representatives, but this must be done by means of a proper 'recall vote'. It is important not confuse constitutional issues with legitimate concerns about an individual's performance. Further, when Lewisham residents went to the polls in May 2006 the result of that election was that Steve Bullock was elected Mayor, I accept that and seek to work within that framework. The campaign's current position therefore is to work towards replacing the position of Mayor in Lewisham after May 2010....'Scrap The Post of Mayor and Replace with a more Democratic System in May 2010' whilst more correct probably doesn't work as well in drawing the attention of the public to the campaign! However, the campaign does need to be quite clear that this final longer slogan is the common cause - however many of us reach that conclusion from different viewpoints.

The other danger of the 'Scrap the Mayor' slogan is that it has the possibility to generate cynicism within the public about politics and politicians generally. As a councillor that of course concerns me greatly. For some 'Scrap the Mayor' has a wider meaning of 'I am fed up with all politicians'. As an elected Councillor I should declare a very personal interest in this matter, but as a member of society I would be concerned if I felt that the campaign intended to stir this apathy/cyncism/negativity up (that's if apathy can be 'stirred up' - discuss!) just to deliver a body blow to Labour in Lewisham. As a member of a broad-based grouping of groups & parties in Lewisham I am happy to declare that I am satisfied that I do not consider this to be the case in Lewisham.

Moving on to describing what's wrong with the Mayoral system. Here it is difficult to avoid mentioning the current Mayor but clearly we can't go far in discussing how the Mayoral system operates without talking about 'The Pool' . In reaching his decision, the Mayor ignored local people and ploughed ahead with the scheme. Following the local elections when Labour lost a significant number of Councillors, he was forced to listen to local people and has now proposed an alternative proposal that has wide support across Lewisham. Rather than encouraging elected Councillors to get involved in decision-making, the Mayoral system in Lewisham gave a Labour Mayor who could be sure of getting the decisions they wanted without fear of public criticism in the Council Chamber. However, this fails to address the point that the best decisions are those that involve people with a wide range of views, and gives a degree of prominence to those most directly affected by the proposals. Something that was sadly lacking in 'The Pool'. The campaign has however learnt from this process...the best campaigns are those that draw support from across the political divide; by concentrating on the post of Mayor and the principled case against the Mayoral system, it has been able to draw support from a wide range of political parties and others. Yet to declare its support however is Lewisham Labour Party...


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