The Newham Mayoral Referendum

by Cllr John Whitworth

The origins of the referendum

The 6th May Newham Governance Referendum originated in a pledge by mayoral candidate Cllr Rokhsana Fiaz in the May 2018 local elections. She promised, if elected, to hold a referendum on the future of the mayoralty by the end of her third year in office because “the mayoral model is broken in Newham”. Her supporters were divided between those who thought she would be a better directly-elected mayor than the long-serving incumbent, Sir Robin Wales, and those who believed that the mayoral model was in any case flawed.
To ensure an early confirmation of the referendum, Newham Council passed a motion in November 2018, setting a date not later than May 2020 with the leader and cabinet model as the alternative to that of the directly-elected mayor. A related mayoral commitment was the setting up of a Democracy and Civic Participation Commission, composed of academics and practitioners involved in participatory democracy, which was noted by the Council in April 2019. However, as part of the remit of the Commission was to advise on the governance model, it seemed unreasonable to determine the alternative model beforehand and it was also believed that holding the referendum on the same day as the London mayoral election might confuse the electorate. Furthermore, a certain number of Party members and several councillors wanted the committee model to be the alternative to the mayoral model on the referendum ballot paper. By the summer of 2019 it had become clear that with the delay in launch of the Democracy and Civic Participation Commission time would be too tight to hold the governance referendum in May 2020. A motion was therefore passed, after a closely fought battle, setting the referendum date between June 2020 and May 2021 and leaving the choice of the alternative to the directly-elected mayor until after the Commission’s findings had been published.

It was their dismay at this change in the nature and timing of the governance referendum that would prompt several councillors and a number of party members to start a petition calling for the leader and cabinet model to be the alternative to the mayoral model in the referendum. The required 11,100 signatures, representing 5% of the electorate, would be collected and presented to the Council in September 2020. This petition would, however, be rejected by the Council because it had contravened the Covid-19 regulations – a decision confirmed by the High Court in January 2021.

When the report of the Democracy and Civic Participation Commission was published in July 2020 there was interest in its proposals for community involvement in the decision-making and implementation of Council policies, but widespread disappointment and some puzzlement with its proposals for the governance model. This so-called ‘Newham Model’ included a two-term limit for the directly-elected mayor, a permanent deliberative assembly of local residents selected by sortition to initiate policy agendas and make recommendations for policy change, and a more participatory system of governance that offered greater opportunities for both councillors and local residents to engage in shaping policy and make decisions. This ‘Newham Model’ could only be ruled out as an alternative to the directly-elected mayor model in the referendum, however, because – as it was not a model prescribed by law – it would have required secondary legislation to be eligible and this would have occasioned an unacceptable delay.

The securing of the referendum

Labour Group refused to whip the noting of the Commission’s report at Council so a Working Group of Labour Group members was formed to consider the alternative model of governance to the directly-elected mayor on the referendum ballot paper. After a number of meetings – which included interviewing the leaders of 10 local authorities with different governance models and ruling parties – the Working Group submitted the committee model as the alternative. This decision was based on long-standing conviction for some as well as evidence obtained from the Working Group’s study, but went against the results of a consultation it held with Labour Party members as a large majority of the 10% who responded opted for the leader and cabinet model.

After a clear but not huge majority of Labour Group members had supported the Democracy Commission Working Party’s report, full Council voted on 21st October 2020 to hold a governance referendum with the committee model as the alternative to the directly-elected mayor model. At its 14th December meeting, the Council then adopted the draft proposals for the committee model of governance, produced by the Council’s Referendum Committee, which gave details of how the committee model could be structured and applied in Newham, noting that the exact details would be decided by the newly-elected Council after 5th May 2022.

The referendum campaign viewed by a member of Newham Voting for Change

As soon as the Council had committed to holding the governance referendum on 6th May 2021 the first campaign group was launched in late October to raise support for the committee model. This group, composed of Labour Party members and councillors from across the borough, adopted the name Newham Voting for Change (Committee Model). It immediately promoted the successful motion at the November Labour Group meeting, which established that all Newham councillors would be free to campaign and vote for the governance model they preferred.

Shortly afterwards, another Labour Party group campaigning for the committee model – Restore Democracy Newham – emerged. The main differences between the two groups were that the former had supported the committee model all along while many of the latter had been advocates for the leader and cabinet model, and the former were largely supportive of Mayor Fiaz while the latter had been quite strongly critical. Also, while Newham Voting for Change consisted of Labour Party members mostly from the left and centre left, Restore Democracy was led by Newham Momentum members and counted among its supporters persons considered by their critics to have shallow Labour Party roots. This group also published material before the end of their campaign under the name Newham Wellbeing. The two campaigns did not wish to work together but for the most part avoided clashes. A community group, Newham People Power, formed to oppose the Council’s emissions-based parking charge, came out in favour of the committee model and allied itself with Restore Democracy Newham. All the other main political parties publicly declared their support for the committee model: the Liberal Democrats in January, East Ham Conservatives in March (though West Ham Conservatives opted for a free vote), and the Green Party in April.

The protagonists of the mayor model, believed to include a majority of the Cabinet, remained strangely silent. Finally, about a month before the referendum, two Labour Party members launched Newham Right to Vote. Mayor Fiaz departed from her position of neutrality when she came out in favour of the Mayor model two weeks before the referendum.

Newham Voting for Change held its first public on-line meeting by zoom on 8th December with guest speakers from two authorities which had adopted the committee model. In the final weeks before polling day a number of on-line meetings and events were held by the committee model supporters, involving councillors, Labour Party members and the wider public. These included a local radio debate between a spokesperson of Newham Voting for Change and one from Newham Right to Vote, though at another public on-line debate the latter failed to produce a protagonist. Newham Voting for Change ran the most active campaign with its website, social media material and several letters in the local press, though all the committee model campaigns produced videos and leaflets. Newham Right to Vote also produced a leaflet a couple of weeks before polling day.

With nearly all the campaigning coming from the committee model side, an observer could have imagined they were heading for an easy victory. It was realised from the start, though, that they were combatting a lack of understanding of the constitutional issues and a low level of interest compared with local policy matters, plus the force of inertia and reluctance to change that has contributed on the other side to the very low national take up of directly-elected mayors. A massive campaign was needed to raise awareness and this was only partly achieved because the committee model protagonists faced several significant handicaps. These were most notably: Covid-19 restrictions – which seriously limited personal contact between campaigners and the voters, the holding of London Mayoral elections at the same time – which was confusing for some of the electorate, and a lack of activists.

The question of the need for a unified campaign is open to discussion. In Newham there was little contact between the political parties or between the two Labour-led campaigns. An advantage in such compartmentalisation is that each group can use messages tailored to its supporters that other groups might not wish to endorse. On the other hand, if the messages appear to be contradictory and the groups seem antagonistic to one another, this can undermine the credibility of the campaigners and turn people away from the objective.

A key lesson to be learned from the Newham experience for referendum campaigns to replace directly-elected mayors is that awareness needs to be raised both in the months before a referendum and on the day of the vote. A large number of volunteers are needed to distribute leaflets in public places and, on the referendum day, to give out information cards in the approaches to the polling stations – which is particularly effective. Different campaigns against the directly-elected mayor model may sometimes be inevitable and need not be detrimental if conflict and contraction in their conduct and messaging can be avoided.

The result

Newham voted to maintain the directly-elected mayor model by 56% to 44% who favoured the committee model, with a turnout of 37.68%. However, the fact that a high proportion of Newham voters opted for the committee model in unfavourable circumstances can be considered a relative, albeit insufficient, success and suggests that referendums in other authorities can unseat their directly-elected mayors.

Other referendums on 6th May produced contrasting results. Sheffield voted for its City Council to adopt the committee model in place of that of the leader and cabinet, but in Tower Hamlets an unusual local situation resulted in the confirmation of the mayoral model with a large majority over a proposal to change to the leader and cabinet model promoted by the incumbent mayor.

Many of the committee model campaigners from Newham will be willing to use their experience to support the challenge to the mayoral model in the October referendum in Croydon posed by the leader and cabinet alternative – and indeed in other authorities where the directly-elected mayor is contested.