As well as voting for London's next Mayor and members of the Greater London Authority today, we here in Tower Hamlets are also voting in a referendum on how the council is run. I doubt that many residents have noticed, let alone taken all the issues on board, so will likely be surprised later today when faced by a voting slip with a question they've not previously considered.
It's not a catchy question because the wording is fixed by legislation and can't be tweaked. But essentially it's do you want a Mayor or do you want a leader? Quick, make your mind up based on zero background knowledge and put a cross in a box.
The vast majority of local councils are run by a leader elected by the other elected councillors. The role of Mayor exists but is mostly ceremonial, often taken in turns according to party and longevity. Day-to-day control rests with a single person voted for by councillors and not directly by the public.
This was how things used to be in Tower Hamlets until 2010 when a campaign to switch from leader to Mayor was unexpectedly successful. It was driven by former council leader Lutfur Rahman, now disgraced, who managed to cobble together enough signatures to trigger a previous referendum and then persuade enough of the electorate they wanted a Mayoral system. The subsequent election saw Rahman elevated to the Mayoralty as an independent, bypassing Labour's 63% share of councillors, and he then proceeded to bleed our coffers dry. 2021 is the first legal opportunity to switch the system back.
What's concerning is the almost complete lack of referendum debate and discussion that's permeated through to the wider community. I've had nothing through my door presenting arguments one way or the other, nor seen any posters in windows... whereas in neighbouring Newham who are having a similar debate I've seen loads.
It's only while researching this post that I've discovered the current Mayor, John Biggs, is keen to abandon the Mayoral system and so remove his direct route to power. I've also spotted that Lutfur Rahman really wants to keep it, and both of these seem excellent reasons to put a cross in the second box. I suspect this makes me better informed than 90% of Tower Hamlets residents who are essentially going to pick an outcome at random (or pick Mayor - no change - because it sounds more familiar than the alternative).
It's also why I think referendums on anything other than major national issues are dangerous. An ill-informed public selecting options on a whim - essentially a coin toss - risks accidentally introducing appalling policies which then affect thousands. It also encourages those who can spend the most money on promotion ("Vote Yes on Proposition 46!") to get their opinions rubberstamped in law, and that rarely ends well.
If today's referendum confirms a switch then next year's Tower Hamlets council elections will be run on the old model and we won't be asked to vote for a Mayor again. It makes a lot of sense, but I fear not enough Tower Hamlets residents understand what's at stake and will sleepwalk into retaining the status quo.