Along with a series of local election defeats the coalition’s localism agenda took a battering during their round of referendums. With people in Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Bradford, Coventry, Sheffield, Leeds, Wakefield and Newcastle voting against the idea in local referendums, only Bristol voters bucked the trend and provided the Prime Minister with some comfort.
Turnout was as to be expected, very low with only 24% turnout in Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham. Critics have argued that the proposals were unnecessary and would have added another expensive layer of bureaucracy; however one of the main reasons for a rejection of a mayoral system in most of these cities can be attributed to the Tories taking their eye off the ball and running a lacklustre campaign. Questions about the power balance between the mayor and the council were never properly dealt with and even those few voters paying attention were left not knowing how a stand-off and consequent stand-still between the two would be avoided. A senior Tory source added that “Cameron didn’t need this because it looks like another personal rejection”.
On the topic of referendums, cities minister Greg Clark defended them saying “the governments view was always that this was a local choice and that people should be given the chance to decide how their city is governed” far from Thatcher’s thoughts that referendums serve only to “sacrifice parliamentary sovereignty to political expediency”
Stuart Drummond, the directly elected mayor of Hartlepool who was first elected in 2002 when he campaigned in a mascot suit as a monkey blamed coalition government divisions for the failure. “Because the Lib Dems have always been against the mayoral system, there has never been a true coalition policy for it and it just seems to be one of David Cameron’s little hobby horses”
A referendum in Doncaster on whether to keep its elected mayor decided 62% to 38% in favour. The present mayor, Peter Davies, is a member of the English Democrats Party.
These defeats are likely to have a knock on effect on the turnout for elections of police commissioners that will go ahead in the autumn, most likely delivering another suffering blow to the coalitions localism agenda unless the government quickly roll their sleeves up.
It does seem like referendums are becoming a lost cause. Regarded as products of a failing system trying to solve the remote and unresponsive characteristics of representative democracy, it’s failed to enthuse any response and therefore a mandate for the government’s plans. It may be the case as argued in The Guardian that “Any party serious about forging a new politics must now consider putting specific plans in its manifesto, securing a mandate for them in the traditional way – and then simply getting on with it”.