While the rest of the country has been concerned with referendum fever us here in Birmingham could be said to be suffering from referendum fatigue.
For nearly a whole year the Birmingham Mail has been running a vicious and derogatory campaign against Birmingham City Council (BCC) to force them into holding a referendum on whether the city should have an elected mayor.
The Mail is the largest selling of the Birmingham papers with a circulation of well over 80, 00 copies a day. Yet despite those impressive stats the Mail has struggled to get anywhere near their objective of 36, 000 (5% of the Birmingham electorate) signatures it needs to force through a referendum.
What is truly shocking though is that despite the paper stagnating around 10,000 signatures it has gone on to use the campaign as a platform to deride the current conservative led administration and at every point been pretty disingenuous with the truth.
For example it kicked of the campaign with a ‘Big Debate’. The event was reported in revered tones as if it was the feeding of the five thousand. In truth only 82 people out of an electorate of a million bothered to turn up. One wonders how many of that 82 were Mail staff….
Despite this apathetic, or is that pathetic, start the Mail pushed on. Why? Because it was never anything to do with gaining a new executive for Birmingham. It was a personal & nasty campaign against the current Conservative administration that also, conveniently, sold a few more copies. They also regularly glossed over the fact that the estimated cost of holding the referendum would cost the Birmingham tax payer £350,000.
The paper’s chief charge against BCC is that it won’t give the people what they want. Plenty of other hyperbole was used to join the affray here including your classic moral high horse-isms such as ‘democracy’ and ‘accountability’ etc. Well now the campaign is a nearly a year old and must close (that Local Government Act again) and the people have shown what they want. They want what they voted for in the first place. And that wasn’t an extra layer of bureaucracy that an elected mayor would entail.
Recently the Mail has realised that its campaign hasn’t done quite as well as expected. They are now pleading with the Secretary of State for Local Government, Hazel Blears, to simply give them a referendum on the elected mayor question. I know that she’s not the most respected individual in the cabinet (or even in the history of Parliamentary Democracy) but surely even Blears can work out that if you can’t raise much over 1% of the electorate to vote then you don’t have much of a case.
I would back a referendum if there was public call for one but quite frankly there is not. If a well orchestrated campaign by a major media outlet can’t achieve the 5% statutory benchmark then an objective assessment of the issue has to be that nobody wants one.
It does however raise a question regarding untrammelled power of the media in politics. Neil Kinnock’s hopes of being Prime Minister were dashed (yet again) in 1992 partly at least, and I would say significantly because of, the negative media campaign against him. It’s safe to say that having you face splashed on the front of a leading ‘Red Top’ on election day with the headline ‘if Neil Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turns out the lights’ is the kind of thing that turns most voters against a party. Conversely it was Blair’s awareness of the media’s power, and his courting of Murdoch, that contributed to his landslide victory in 1997.
I am the last person that would advocate any state intervention when the freedom of the press is concerned but I think it is important to remember that most elements that make up a democracy have an agenda. This time the Birmingham Mail just picked the wrong one.