Your council sucks.

If you live in England, how do you rate your local government? Not very highly is a good bet. Unless you live in London, I'd wager that you don't even know who runs your council. The odds say you didn't vote for whoever it is. The odds say you probably didn't vote at all. That's just how they like it. No interest means no oversight. They're free to carry on their lazy, corrupt governance, spending your council tax on "fact-finding missions" to the Caribbean and white elephant monuments to their egos.

There's little point in trying to vote them out. Even if your council isn't the one party state that it is in most areas, the opposition are bound to be just as keen to protect the cosy status quo.

It's time to take over.

Obviously the only solution is to do it yourself. Take over the council and give them a kick up the arse. England would be a better place if there were more noders running the place.

So, how do we go about it? In a move they've probably been regretting ever since, the Labour government passed The Local Government Act 2000, introducing the concept of the directly elected mayor to British politics. Unlike the Lord Mayor which most cities have, which is just another excuse for mutual masturbation by local councillors and has less power than the winner of Pop Idol, having a role based around opening swimming pools and attending lavish dinners, a directly elected mayor actually has some clout. Much more akin to a US city mayor: you should think more Rudolph Giuliani than Dick Whittington.

The first city to get the right to a directly elected mayor was London, which gave the government a taste of the troubles to come. The voters rejected (*shock* *horror*) the candidate put forward by the Labour Party and instead elected the independent Ken Livingstone to the post. This pattern has been repeated across the country, as more regions elected independent or single-issue candidates. This is something of an unknown quantity in Britain, where the first past the post electoral system virtually eliminates any chance of electoral success from anyone other than the major parties.

This is your chance to actually have some influence. Most councils quickly saw that this was a real threat to their power and resisted any moves to have mayoral elections on their turf. Luckily, in moves that were originally put in place to tackle stubborn Tory councils, local voters have the chance to force a referendum. This is now being used against the (largely Labour) councils who are resisting the holding of a referendum. Many, including my local unitary authority in Bristol, have used other provisions in the Act to set themselves up a cabinet-run system to try and forestall the pressure for modernisation, while consolidating their own power.

Forcing a referendum

Now for the nitty-gritty, but first a quick disclaimer. I haven't done this. If I was mayor, would I still be hanging around on E2? Well, probably, yeah. Anyway: this is based on an authority in England that doesn't already have an elected mayor (though Londoners can try for a borough mayor), and preferably where the incumbent council is resisting the idea of an elected mayor. The momentum and publicity gained from forcing a referendum will be important to your campaign. You need to be seen to beat the council. Humiliate them, even.

Anyone can force a referendum for a mayoral election. All it takes is a petition of local voters. You'll need to get the support of at least 5% of the electorate. Unfortunately, you can't use an online petition, or this would be a piece of piss to organise, although the government claims they are considering this. Until that time, it's dead tree only.

While organising the petition, you should be setting the groundwork for the inevitable time when it comes to your showdown with the Big Three candidates at the mayoral election proper. Take every chance to point out how you are giving the people the chance to have their say, while the council is stubbornly trying to hold on to their power.

At this point you will need to start courting the local press. Take care: many local hacks will be cosy with the local councillors, from years of interdependence. Hopefully you'll be able to rely on them spotting a great story (that's you) and running with it. Do your research. immerse yourself in the local press. Read all the papers every day, even the free ones that should be lining the cat litter. Find out what their editorial line is. You'll need to see which buttons you need to push. If you are lucky, there will be some local issues where the local rag is already campaigning against the council. There should be things that people are writing to the paper's letters page about. This is your bandwagon: jump on! The sort of people who write to the local paper are just the sort who bother to vote in local elections.

You will need some finance for your campaign. Hopefully you'll be able to put up some yourself, until the time that enough local people and businesses decide to jump aboard your bandwagon before you ride it all the way to your rightful place in the city hall. If you haven't got lucky with the press, this is the time to buy some space in the local paper. Advertising space is the best way of courting favour with the media. It's uncanny how opinions change on the back of some strategic ad spend. Your best bet for this is to place a mini-petition to cut out from the paper. The text of the petition can be copied from the government's website (URL below). A relatively small ad, in a prominent position, which includes the petition text, with space for half a dozen signatures, hopefully accompanied by some favourable editorial copy nearby, is what you're aiming for. Buy a Freepost address from the post office. Better yet, find a local business to sponsor the advert. They'll get great PR, and buy some influence once you're in power (did I say that?).

You should by now have recruited a small army of supporters. These must be dispatched with clipboards and petitions to the streets of your biggest cities on Saturday afternoons and weekday lunchtimes. You've got to be careful they don't look like charity workers, or everyone will hide from them. Not that politicians are more popular: just remember, at the moment you're just fighting to give the people their right to have their say. Find local shops that will take your petition and put it on the counter (don't forget a pen tied to the clipboard!). You are aiming for that magical number of 5%. The exact number is published by the council each year, and is known as the "verification number". It should be on their website. If not, make a big thing of forcing them to give it to you: they have to, it's the law. You might as well put out a press release for this. In fact, put out a press release for everything. You're a noder, so you can write. If you send out a press release with some well written copy and some half-decent photos, you'll find that plenty of lazy local journos will print it virtually unaltered. This is something to remember for your later campaign.

The number is likely to be in the region on ten thousand names, which isn't too hard a target if you work hard. It's best to aim for at least 10% more than the required number, as there will probably be spoiled or invalid signatures. You have one year in which to collect all the signatures, which should be ample. If you're doing it slower than that, your momentum is too slow anyway.

Once you've got enough names, call a press conference (use a hotel, or, better yet, if the weather's good, have it outdoors at some local landmark.). Now you deliver your petition to the council, making sure to spin this as a major victory of people power against the big, nasty council.

You have no time to rest now. Hopefully the council will soon verify your petition and announce the date for the referendum. Your efforts now should be focussed on maintaining the momentum that you've built up with the petition, so you should be moving directly onto the campaign for the referendum, which I will cover in the next part of this writeup...

Next Up: How to become mayor of an English town: part 2



Mayoral referendum information pack: http://www.odpm.gov.uk/stellent/groups/odpm_localgov/documents/page/odpm_locgov_605672.hcsp
My feverered imaginations and several years experience dealing with local media

Ascorbic's excellent and timely writeup has inspired me to add my own, chiefly because the process he describes of forcing a referendum for a directly elected mayor is actually happening, in the London Borough of Ealing, where I live. Although E2 is not Slashdot, I do feel the need to do some reportage, and also present the general case for the 'No' campaign, to counterbalance the arguments presented in ascorbic's writeup in favour of a directly elected mayor.

The referendum took place on the 12th of December, 2002 - see update below.

How I found out about it
Firstly, I would like to point out that the whole process has a certain mysterious air about it. An orange polling card arrived on my doormat on Tuesday 12th November - one month before the referendum. There was no attached literature or explanation, and the poll card merely said that there was a referendum, and where to vote, not what it was all about. My first reaction was "Eh?" as was the same reaction among many local friends.

I drink in the same pub as a number of local councillors, so a group of us took the opportunity to ask them for an explanation. The reaction was "Oh! that thing. A pain in the arse it is too."

Then, we learned of the Local Government Act 2000, and the ability of anyone with enough signatures to force a referendum. And the council must pay all the expenses of running the election out of council taxpayers' money. We asked why there was no explanation accompanying the poll card. Apparently, the rules on this are very strict, and an accompanying leaflet would have been deemed propaganda, especially as the council are unanimously opposed to the campaign. Apparently, the local rag, the Gazette, carried a letter for, and a letter against the campaign.

Yesterday, I received a leaflet from the "No" campaign, 6 days before the poll. Below is the gist of the "No" campaign, summarised for your benefit. I believe that ascorbic has covered the salient points of the "Yes" campaign, but as yet I have not received any literature from them.

Outcomes and implications
If the vote goes against a directly elected mayor, this holds for 5 years. After this time, another campaign may raise another petition and force another referendum.

If the vote goes for, in the words of an ex-councillor, "we are stuck with a directly elected mayor". It seems that the Local Government Act makes no provision for reversing the decision if it proves a disaster.

Political mayor versus Civic mayor
The present mayor of Ealing is an elected councillor, who is appointed by the council as a whole, to assume the duties of a civic mayor. A directly elected, political mayor does not have the same accountability, and is not exposed to or reresentative of the diverse views and issues in the borough.
Finance
The "no" campaigners estimate that a directly elected mayor will cost more than a million pounds (>1.4 $M), from the local government budget.
Summary
All major political parties are opposed to the directly elected mayor. Everybody I have spoken to so far who is connected with the council is against.

Apparently, a bunch of extremists who call themselves LA21 are behind the referendum. This group have little to do with the Rio Earth Summit, and its noble aims, but are pursuing a "local agenda" of their own.

Update
On 12th December, with a 9.6% turnout, Ealing voted "No" for a directly elected mayor. For more information, see    http://www.ealing.gov.uk/council/elections/mayor+referendum.asp

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