Governance referendums in the east London boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets have resulted in voters of both choosing to retain their directly-elected Mayor (DEM) systems of local government rather than adopt a more conventional model instead.
In plebiscites that took place on Thursday 6 May, the same day as the elections for London Mayor and London Assembly, Newham’s electors opted by 56 per cent to 44 per cent to retain their DEM arrangement and those of Tower Hamlets but the strikingly larger margin of 78 per cent to 22.
The Tower Hamlets result is a disappointment for the borough’s current Mayor, Labour’s John Biggs. He had backed adopting the Leader and Cabinet system, the alternative option on the ballot paper, under which the council leader is elected by councillors rather than directly by voters.
Biggs became Mayor in June 2015 in a re-run mayoral election following the removal from office of his predecessor Lutfur Rahman after an election court found he had engaged in “corrupt and illegal practices” during the the campaign for the 2014 mayoral election, which was declared void. Biggs had been runner-up in the voided contest.
Rahman was banned for standing for office for five years, which are now up. He campaigned in support of retaining the mayoral system amid speculation that he will seek to make a comeback at the next election in May 2022. Rahman became Tower Hamlets Mayor for the first time in October 2010, standing as an Independent after Labour removed him as their candidate.
Newham’s referendum was the fulfilment of a pledge by the borough’s current Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz to provide an opportunity for voters to abolish the mayoralty. Fiaz, who was elected Mayor for the first time in 2018, became Labour’s candidate after defeating the long-time incumbent Robin Wales in an internal Labour selection contest. Wales had been Newham’s Mayor since the the first election to the post in May 2002.
Newham’s voters were offered a choice between retained a DEM system and replacing it with the Committee System of local government, whereby the council would – in the words of the Newham referendum ballot – be run “by one or more committees made up of elected councillors”. Under the committee system council leaders have less power over council decisions than under the Leader and Cabinet set-up.
Fiaz, who had decided to back retaining the DEM arrangements following a wider-ranging governance review, welcomed the referendum outcome and renewed her pledge to “transform Newham into a beacon of participatory democracy where residents are involved in shaping the future of our borough” including through a permanent citizens’ assembly.
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