Thursday, April 17, 2008

Does Bradford need a mayor?

Or Bradford's political future - part two

A question to ask here is what kind of change is required in Bradford for it to move on some of the major issues that we face: namely education and employment. This is where changes to local government are relevant. One of the options being presented to local government is to change the decision making structure. At present, Bradford has 90 councillors and the executive is made up of councillors from the leading party (which in this case is the Conservative party because it is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – Labour has the most councillors in Bradford but not enough to command a majority) and the Council Leader is appointed by the lead party. The nature of Bradford as a metropolitan district has meant that it has proverbially hung in the balance between the rural and suburban Tories and the inner-city Labour party. Local elections occur every year and so the political structure is forever fragile. This remains the case today. What this means is that the politics of the city is too fraught for there to be any major movement on some of the central issues. With employment a serious concern and a rising youth population, this means that without leadership we could end up meandering into a troubled place.

The options being presented by DCLG are either to keep the present structure or to move towards a mayoral model like in London. Bradford currently has a mayor but this is a symbolic role. The new set-up would make the mayor directly elected for a 4 year term. The next question is what are the big issues or the political issues for a place like Bradford? Is there any real difference in local policies between the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour? With the convergence towards centrist politics on a national stage on many local democracy issues, I would hazard a guess that locally party politics is less important than at the national stage. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Bradford is not a political place. I think the one major political issue that could emerge in a direct mayoral election is the issue of multiculturalism. I can’t see potential mayors arguing over the size of adult services (that’s social services for adults) but I can see mayoral candidates arguing over the issue of multiculturalism (the US presidential election and the London mayoral elections are examples of this). It’s possible that a far right candidate could emerge and perhaps it would be useful to have an open debate about it but there certainly could be an opportunity for the far right to make its case. There would need to be some unity candidates that offered a vision for a united and prosperous city. I can see the beginnings of such a language emerging at present across the parties (excluding Anne Cryer). So this is something that needs to be considered.

Also, a question needs to be asked about whether a mayoral candidate or candidates are actually available in Bradford? Can the Muslim community offer a candidate? Can the political parties offer candidates? If the candidates are not available, then is it any good to pursue a system which will rely on strong candidates?

Finally, people who decry Muslim representation point to the effectiveness of the biraderi system in getting people in to councillor positions. It is certainly possible that the biraderi system could be used to help elect councillors within a mayoral system but there is another way of single-handedly wiping out their effectiveness: if councillors were elected towards a Bradford assembly through proportional representation system as in London, then the Biraderis would be much weakened. It’s much easier to organise for 2,000 votes in one ward than it is for 50,000 across the district. So if Bradford is to face the major political challenges that lie on its doorstep, then it may have to consider changing its political system.