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From The Socialist newspaper, 5 May 2010


Tower Hamlets mayoral referendum

Would having an 'executive Mayor' be more democratic than the way Tower Hamlets council is run at the moment? George Galloway's Respect has successfully triggered a referendum on introducing a mayor who would be elected by the whole borough, claiming this would be more accountable than having just the current councillors.

Tower Hamlets' current 'leader and cabinet' system allows a small minority of councillors to make decisions which are then presented to the full council to be rubber-stamped.

However, despite the enormous faults of the existing system, having a directly elected mayor with executive powers would be even less democratic.


New Labour and the Tories have supported the introduction of directly elected mayors in some councils, with the result that democratic accountability in local government has been reduced. This is an aping of the US system, where many cities are run by 'big personality' mayors, supervised only by elected boards who meet once a year to hand out contracts for public services to private providers.

It is far easier in such a system for one person to take unpopular decisions to cut or privatise services, or to favour business interests, than to win support for such policies amongst a wider group of councillors who know they will have to justify themselves to a specific ward area of local voters.

Lewisham is one of only 12 councils out of 376 in England and Wales with an executive mayor. The Tower Hamlets 'Yes For Mayor' campaign has produced a leaflet interviewing Lewisham mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, on the 'great success' of the system there.

It doesn't mention that Bullock was elected with the votes of just 12.4% of the electorate, one out of every eight voters. Nor that when New Labour's plan to demolish the popular Ladywell Leisure Centre was defeated by a large community campaign (supported by Lewisham's Socialist Party councillors), and a Lewisham council meeting eventually voted to abandon the demolition, Steve Bullock still had the power to override the councillors' decision if he had chosen to do so. How is that 'more democratic'?

Campaigning for a directly-elected mayor in Tower Hamlets is a mistake when it comes to defending democracy within local government. The real route to local democracy is to argue for elected councillors, who are fully accountable and subject to recall by those who elected them.

It also requires building a working-class political alternative that can not only challenge the main parties for control of councils, but involve the local community and trade unions in implementing real socialist policies - like the Poplar councillors in the 1920s and Liverpool city council in the 1980s.

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The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

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In The Socialist 5 May 2010:

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Tower Hamlets mayoral referendum


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