I’ve been to a couple of events over the last few days all about the elected mayor referendum that’s coming up on the 3rd of May. I’m pretty sure that I want a ‘yes’ vote—even if it does nothing more than make it more obvious who is running the city: visible bad leadership is still better than the invisible and bad leadership we can have under the current system. The exact powers an mayor would have in Birmingham aren’t decided, and it will be the job of a good strong elected mayor to lobby central government to make sure they have all of the options they need.
There’s also the question of money—a big question that a mayor will have to have plans for, but if you want to see one simple way a Major can lead and rejuvenate the image of a city then you need look no further than across the atlantic and to Cory Booker. And it’s costing him nothing, and he needs no specific powers to do so.
Booker is a mayor of a city in the shadow of a big neighbour, a city of around a million people with a high non-white population, a city often unfairly characterised in the media as dangerous or dull. He’s taken on the might of the media in Conan O’Brien who joked: “The mayor of Newark New Jersey wants to set up a citywide program to improve residents’ health… The health care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark”. This strong advocate for a downtrodden area is something that elected mayors have the power to give to a city, and if that description of Newark sounded like I was writing about Birmingham, then good — it was meant to.
The 2007 documentary Street Fight portrays him as a powerful force, but is main weapon is openness and accessibility— online as well as off— every so often he’ll talk to aTwitter follower directly about their issue, he’ll also tweet about his caffeine consumption and in almost Ice Cubian honestly he’ll proclaim that ‘today was a good day, no-one had to use their AK’ (or at least that Newark had a murder free month for the first time in 50 years).
What it provides is true leadership; yes Booker users his connections to nudge and campaign but what is more important it establishes him as a visible hub in a network, a person whom is both human and responsive. This fosters more political engagement than a hundred expensively advertised, staffed and graphed consultations (again, his messages reach one million plus people on one very easy to manage, free, channel). This method isn’t without issues of scale, whether you could expect Cameron to address people directly in this way I don’t know — but at city level it can certainly be sustained by a man as engaged as Booker.
On the internet, it’s said that no-one knows you’re a dog and surely a politician entrusted with the wellbeing of a geographical area will be pressured by ‘outside agitators’,organised campaigns and pranksters. Perhaps, not withstanding that it is perfectly possible to mine the data trail we leave for much more powerful signals of real intent these days, voices from outside the city present a gentle pressure to wider interests and a change of cross civic altruism. It also does no harm at all to the image of the city.
This is more important for being the one goal that any figurehead can achieve, there is no budgetary or legislative support needed, it costs nothing but the will. With local authority spending no doubt under continuing pressure, it may be the most powerful goal too. If the slack of the state must be taken up by volunteers then they will need engaging, the will need to feel supported, appreciated and listened to. You can’t pay people to engage emotionally, but you can do it and do it at scale online.
An elected major is what Birmingham needs for all sorts of reasons, but if they are to lead they need to be connected too. Getting engaged in the campaigns and voting is your part of that connection.