ANALYSIS: Mayoral elections pose PR challenge - As voters decide for the first time how their local authority is run rather than merely who runs it, council PROs have a tough task convincing them it is all worthwhile, says Joe Lepper

Last year's Local Government Act came down hard on councils, accusing them of being out of date and slow. The source of this inefficiency, according to the Government, is the 19th century-designed committee structure, which councils have been ordered to axe by next year.



Change is indeed needed but what the act has proposed to put in its place is proving hard for councils to transfer into reality. One option, and the one that sparks most media attention, is that through referendums, voters can choose whether of not to have a directly elected executive mayor.



PROs are vital to engage the public and show them that their opinions matter. But they face an uphill struggle doing so when arguably most residents are more concerned with bin collections and school quality not management structures.



So far, four councils have held mayoral referendums and only one - Watford, in a postal ballot last month - has seen a vote in favour of electing its own Ken Livingstone. In June, voters in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, Gloucester, and Cheltenham said 'no'.



Watford's 'You Can Choose' campaign, with a budget equal to 40p per voter, started in June 2000 when 34,000 consultation leaflets were distributed, receiving just a five per cent response rate. When a second leaflet was sent out in January this year the response rate rose to eight per cent.



The eventual result, on 24 per cent turnout and with 51 per cent voting for a directly elected mayor, had a mixed response. Opposition Lib Dems and Conservatives in Watford point out that just 13 per cent of the total electorate voting 'yes' is hardly a convincing mandate for change.



But the Labour council is heralding the vote as a sign of the success of its campaign. Council PRO Samantha Campbell says the turnout was just two per cent off that of the 2000 local elections and that the postal ballot referendum of 12 July was just weeks after the General Election.



She said: 'There was a danger of voters being "electioned out" but our objective of minimising fall in voter turnout was met.'



Watford council CEO Alan Clarke remains upbeat. He said: 'With an elected mayor, it will be clear who runs the town and there will be a strong voice standing up for Watford.'



In Berwick, with a population of just 27,000, there was no separate budget for publicity. This meant no special frisbees (see panel), no slogans and no outside agency help.



Despite the lack of PR budget, its referendum turnout was 64 percent and a consultation leaflet achieved a 20 per cent response rate.



Council PRO Fergus Emleton-Black urges caution, however, saying that despite these figures voter confusion was widespread. He said: 'Some people actually thought they were voting for the current mayor.



'We would like to have been able to put out more publicity, explaining the issues, but that wasn't possible for financial reasons,' he added.



Lack of funds isn't the only problem in the battle to spark interest in local political structures. The wording of the DETR (now the

DTLR)-scripted referendum question is hardly inspiring. It reads: 'Are you in favour of the proposal of (name of council) to be run in a new way which includes a mayor, who will be elected by the voters of that borough, to be in charge of the council's services and to lead the council that it serves?'



Emleton-Black says: 'It's not going to win any plain English awards.'



Also, central government has come under fire for inefficiency, the same criticism it has leveled at its local counterparts.



Criticism focuses on the fact that secondary legislation concerning the mayoral elections has yet to be tabled and won't be until after Parliament's summer break.



This means next May is the earliest opportunity for people to vote for their mayor. This has incurred the wrath of the the Local Government Association, which has contacted DTLR officials. LGA head of policy Nick Easton said: 'We are disappointed by this. The delay means Watford can't proceed to the next stage until next year, when it had expected elections in October.'



Further criticism of the transformation of council structures has come from Birmingham. The city's democracy commission, charged with handling council modernisation and chaired by Sir Adrian Cadbury, is not convinced the public is ready to decide on a directly elected mayor.



It has now successfully recommended that a consultative ballot is held in October asking for views on all options available. Other options include a cabinet and leader model, and a streamlined committee system.



The city's £85,000 publicity campaign - 'Running Birmingham: You Choose' - is now entering a new phase to publicise this ballot.



Next January, only if a majority favour a directly elected mayor, will the DTLR question, in all its 47-word glory, be put to the public vote.



If the experience of other authorities is anything to go by, Birmingham, and the many more that are to follow, have a major job on their hands.



WATFORD BOROUGH COUNCIL



Campaign: 'You Can Choose'



Timescale: June 2000 - July 2001



Budget: £24,000



Objectives



To raise awareness of the options for modernising the council, inform people of voting methods, minimise voter apathy and raise Watford council's profile as an innovative moderniser.



Consultation and research showed that while many preferred an elected mayor to other options there was a challenge in getting residents interested in modernisation. Watford had to sell the message - 'You Can Choose' - and engage groups normally reluctant to vote, for example the young and ethnic minorities.



Strategy and Plan



The council held Q&A sessions with six ethnic groups; it put on exhibitions at supermarkets, libraries, community events and the town centre. it distributed 25,000 shopping bags advertising the campaign; it targeted children with balloons, frisbees and pocket games to remind parents to vote; it distributed posters, beer mats, drinks with the slogan to nightclubs and bars; and it sent voting reminders to

first-time voters.



Westminster Strategy was used to handle the national media.



Results



As the turnout was only 2.5 per cent less than the local election turnout of 2000, the objective of minimising a fall in voter turnout was met.



An evaluation of the effectiveness in reaching specific target groups could not be undertaken.



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