SHEFFIELD makes political history next Thursday when voters will be asked whether they want an elected mayor.
The referendum is being held on Thursday, the same day as the council elections. If the vote is in favour, candidates will line up for an election in November to select the most important and influential politician in the city.
Campaigners from both sides have been pressing their cases in recent weeks but none of the major local parties want the change and there are few signs of the debate igniting public enthusiasm.
“It’s the election that nobody wants,” said Alan McGauley, principal lecturer in politics at Sheffield Hallam University.
Sheffield is among ten cities holding a referendum on the principle of having an elected mayor – as opposed to the ceremonial post of Lord Mayor, which would continue – on Government orders, with the support of the three national parties.
Those in favour say it will increase political accountability and give Sheffield a high-profile elected figurehead to stand up for the city across the UK and the world in the competition for investment and jobs.
Prime Minister David Cameron said this week it was “a once in a generation chance” to inject more life into the political system and cities that did not seize the opportunity were at risk of “stagnating”.
Critics say there is not much wrong with the existing democratic system of Sheffield being run by a council leader and cabinet and warn of the potential chaos of an elected mayor from one party and a council dominated by another party, pointing to recent events in Doncaster.
The ballot paper will ask voters how they would like the council to be run – as it is now, by a leader who is an elected councillor chosen by other councillors or by a mayor who is elected by voters.
Turnout is traditionally low at local elections, so a relatively small number of voters could have a big say on whether a new political era dawns in Sheffield.
An elected mayor would hold power without the threat of removal for four years. The council leader heads the biggest party in the Town Hall and can be removed at any time.
Mr McGauley believes the proposed switch was not fully thought through by the previous Government, which set the ball rolling, and warns of potential clashes.
If a Sheffield mayor had been elected during the height of the Liberal Democrats’ popularity three years ago, there would probably now be a Lib Dem mayor battling with a Labour council.
There could also be dual seats of power in the shape of a powerful mayor and a new police commissioner for South Yorkshire, who would be elected at the same time in November.
Mr McGauley is not convinced that Sheffield needs an elected mayor. “In a big city like Sheffield it would create a real problem in terms of getting things done when there are a lot of issues to be dealt with over the next few years.
“I don’t think it will really work in Sheffield and nobody really wants it. We have seen what has happened in Doncaster.”
The concept of an elected mayor is “an idea that ran away with itself” at Westminster, he said. “The big parties have never been comfortable with local government. Labour has sometimes been embarrassed by it being to the left of the national party and, particularly in the north, the Conservatives are no longer a party of local government, and they are antagonistic towards it.
“There used to be a substantial Conservative opposition in Sheffield but now there are no Conservative councillors and a large minority of the population is not being represented, even with the decline of the Liberal Democrats. There should be at least several Tory councillors in the city.”
Mr McGauley said the parties in Sheffield were preferring to concentrate on the local elections instead of the referendum. “I think it will probably be decided on a fairly low turnout.”
If Sheffield votes for an elected mayor, each of the parties is expected to submit a candidate and the field would be open to local personalities. So far there has been only speculation on possible names – current Labour council leader Julie Dore, former Sheffield Central MP and Sports Minister Richard Caborn and former Lib Dem council leader Paul Scriven.
“I don’t think any of the Sheffield Labour MPs would want it and there are not many big players in the Labour group. And you don’t want a Sean Bean or whoever. It’s a serious job and a difficult job.”
There is the cost of running for mayor – probably around £20,000 just for leaflets and mail shots – and critics say it would cost up to £400,000 to set up a mayor’s office.
The ‘yes’ campaign in Sheffield has been led by community activist and Labour Party member Kevin Meagher, the ‘no’ campaign by the Unison trade union.
Mr Meagher said: “Cities which opt to go with an elected mayor will gain new powers and clout to fight to shape their future. These mayors will even meet with the Prime Minister in Number 10 twice a year to put their city’s case directly. In terms of influence its a million miles away from where we are at present.”
Veteran Labour councillor Peter Price is warning against an American-style system of local government: “Don’t fall for it, Sheffield. What it will do is to render all your elected representatives totally powerless to act on behalf of their communities ... All the decisions will be taken by one person, the mayor.”
The arguments will continue until Thursday but, unlike the ‘Boris v Ken’ confrontations in London, so far the debate has hardly seized the public imagination in Sheffield.