Definitely Mayor (be)

By Vincent Carroll-Battaglino

Residents of both Newham and Tower Hamlets have confirmed their existing mayoral governance structures. In Newham, the mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, ended up on the winning side after a late conversion to the mayoral cause based on the governance review the council undertook. 56 per cent backed the mayoral system, and Fiaz’s job appears safe – given both Newham constituency parties are “suspended”, there may not even be a selection contest.

The more interesting case, as I identified in my previous piece, Mayor (be), Mayor (be not), is Tower Hamlets, where the Labour mayor and local party strongly supported a return to leader and cabinet. Here the margin is massive. Voters defied the major parties to back the mayoral system by 63,029 votes to 17,951 votes, on a turnout of 41.8 per cent. Conversely, the Labour vote for London mayor and GLA member held up. So why the difference, and is anyone to blame?

Complexity of argument

The best campaigns have simple and accessible messages. This is not because the electorate isn’t sophisticated (it is), but because it doesn’t have time to waste on you. The arguments for or against local governance systems are complex, precisely because they are tenuous and made up to serve the interests of those making the argument. 

In Tower Hamlets, there’s the added hurdle of Labour holding power but arguing for overhaul. “I’m not in power and I want a change of system” is likely to been seen as self-serving, but at least it’s easy to understand. Conversely, arguing to abolish a system that you have previously claimed to be successfully governing through, is more muddled. If outcomes for this system are bad, doesn’t that mean it’s you who’s been delivering the bad outcomes?

Despite some stellar online activity, the Leading Together campaign struggled to get the message across. The lack of canvassing may also have played a part – doorstep conversations are marginally better for arguments that take more than a sentence to make. In contrast there’s a much simpler argument in favour of a mayor: “You get to elect it!”

Lack of institutional promotion

Campaigners reported that many residents didn’t know about the referendum. The council didn’t promote it enough. This is blamed for the reams of blank ballot papers count attendees say they saw come through. The 3,444 spoiled ballots equate to 4 per cent of the total, a significantly higher rate than the 2.19 per cent spoiled ballots recorded in the City and East GLA constituency last Thursday (6 May). Conventional wisdom is to hold referendums along with other votes to boost turnout and save on cost. But this may have obscured the point here.

Ballot design

The phrasing of the question is all-important in a referendum. You could not come up with a more fortuitous phrasing for the pro-Mayor camp. It repeats their key campaign message verbatim. It was: 

“How Would you like Tower Hamlets Borough Council to be run?

  • By a mayor who is elected by voters. This is how the council is run now.


  • By a leader who is an elected councillor chosen by a vote of the other elected councillors. This would be a change from how the council is run now.”

There are other smaller influences. As any civic mayor will attest, “Mayor” is what a significant proportion of the electorate understands to mean leader, while other terms, including “leader”, will be anathema. Being higher on the ballot boosts your chances a fair bit too. In three member wards the poor colleague with the surname down the alphabet often loses out to the most popular opponent. Lack of awareness will cause confusion, and will have added to the numbers “just ticking the first option”. 

Rahman resurgent

Former mayor Lutfur Rahman campaigned prominently for the retention of the mayoral system. He maintains a large personal following in the borough and this contributed to the landslide result. Other characters are returning to the scene to play their part in mobilisation heading into next year’s local elections. Labour’s new issue is that it fell back on the “vote for Leader and cabinet to keep Rahman out” argument and lost. What does this tell them about the chances of solidifying their current hegemony in the borough?

What next?

Perhaps the two results in Newham and Tower Hamlets were well-deserved, with the red herring of electoral systems being rumbled by the electorate, which said “stop faffing about and get on with it”. Given the prominence of Rahman during the campaign, it is highly likely that he will run for mayor again in 2022.

As for Leading Together, the mood is actually not too despondent. They were dealt a tough hand. The fact is, changing the system avoided the issue: there’s a new recognition within the campaign that to do it properly they will have to beat Rahman at the ballot box fair and square.