Leeds Mayor debate . . . take your pick.


Does anyone remember a quiz show called “Take Your Pick”? It went something like this.

One lucky contestant who manages to guess the answers to a barrage of random, pointless questions ends up at the climax of the show facing a choice; “take the money” or “open the box.” The money isn’t much. And chances are the box contains an old boot or a mousetrap. At best there’s a few more quid, though there is always the tantalising reveal in the opening credits – “and tonight’s star prize is . . . ” – when a curtain opens and there’s a speedboat, a Triumph Dolomite, or the latest automatic washing machine. Hardly anyone actually wins the star prize, we all know that, but the thought that it’s possible to bag the speedboat always guarantees an outbreak of oohing and aahing.

The choice is between a certain but hardly inspiring win and the slim chance that the box might contain something a bit better, but more likely a bit worse. The audience is encouraged to join in with the decision, based on absolutely no accurate information at all. Everyone feels equally free to vent an opinion, however.

Half of them howls, “take the money,” the other half bellows, “open the box.” Which is hardly helpful. The contestant just stands there, blinking, perspiring, fiddling with the buttons on his jacket, until he’s prompted, “time’s up!” and made to point at one thing or another.

Whatever the outcome the contestant had better look suitably grateful for having been given the chance to take part.

Yesterday evening I went to the debate about the Leeds Mayor vote. I can now understand exactly how those contestants must have felt.

The “take the money” crowd (No to Leeds Mayor!) are convinced that the present set up is working just fine. They point out that we know exactly what we are going to get – even if they admit it’s not that much – and that any change would be a gamble. The mayoral box may contain just hot air.

The “open the box” folks (Hell, yeah to Leeds Mayor!) seem to think that whatever the box contains it’s got to be a big improvement on what we are offered currently by the council. In fact, they don’t really care what’s in the box, it’s the fact that we are all getting involved and whooping that’s the key. The more we jump up and down and the louder we boo and hooray the better things will be. It’s called “participation” I believe. Participation will put something in the box as if by magic.

And there were a few people there who wanted nothing to do with the whole show. Cobblers to the contest! It’s not about the money! Let’s make our own boxes! Just shows there are dreamers and cranks in every city. It’s people like that give people ideas.

The oddest thing about last night was the constant “myth busting.” The Yes people busting the myths of the No voters, and the No’s counterbusting the Yes myths. Leeds seems fuller of myths than Ancient Greece! I felt privileged to be in the presence of so many savvy Socratic dialecticians.

I am, sadly, still none the wiser. And remember what a certain city did to Socrates!

So, when I’m asked am I Yes, or am I No, the only reply I can honestly manage is a shrug; take your pick.


  1. Well said Phil, take your pick indeed. People like to bash the council, and it’s not perfect, but I don’t want some bumptious bloke charging about being mayoral, and high profile and full of ‘character’ I want a group of people to try to make the best decisions they can in relative anonymity, even though that’s kind of boring, because that’s democracy for you, the least worst alternative.

  2. some good points.

    I feel what has been missed a bit, or rather a lot, is the nature of democracy. How should we be governed? do we at not so local level (the population of the City of Leeds is almost two and a half times that of the Republic of Iceland) want a Presidential system or cabinet government? Do we wish our city to be governed by unpaid volunteers or a salaried executive who gets his P45 if the voters choose somebody else.

    Well that’s the key issue for me anyway. I am a Radical Democrat and I will be voting No. Perhaps part of the problem is that the yes campaign has won last nights debate at least, by default.

    Glad to see that Stoke has got rid of it’s executive mayor and hopefully doncaster will follow suit.

  3. there are some weak arguments from the No inclined that I would like to distance myself from. One is the cost of this referendum. Good to see such a decision in the hands of the voters where it should be. Can the voters be trusted with electing a presidential mayor? Likesay not keen on the argument that the people shouldn’t be trusted and that the people’s representatives somehow know best.

    Perhaps a Yes win will mean a shake up of Leeds City Council, but will this be for the better? I suspect it will be temporary and into the second and third term of an elected mayor we will be facing the same issues. So yes at best I feel that a Presidential Mayor is a sideways move.

    Whatever the outcome on Thursday I for one can live with it, it won’t be the end of the world. A very big thank you though to the organisers and panelists who made yesterday’s debate happen.

  4. How typical of you bloggers to wax metaphorical about Take Your Pick but fail to mention the highlight of the show – the Yes/No interlude, in which our quiz inquisitor had a fun-packed minute to trick contestants into saying “Yes” or “No” in answer to questions of no consequence.

    Yours in disappointment

    Michael Miles Appreciation Society (North Leeds Chapter)

  5. It’s not so much a question of whether ‘the public can be trusted’ so much as can the media, which informs and arguably directs public opinion, be trusted to be objective? I think taking a bit of interest in the London mayoral elections has demonstrated to me that this isn’t the case. The pro-Boris bias at the Evening Standard is shocking, a free paper read by millions, and will help hand him another term despite his failings. The same thing could happen here.

    Having a single person to focus on allows personality and private life to become the focus, not policy, and gives a single target for slurs or spin. This can’t really work with a cabinet system with multiple participants.

    There’s also the details we need to be told: Will there be limits on campaign spending for instance. What’s to stop someone buying the election with a slick campaign?

  6. Hard not to agree. Should we put the deckchairs on the promenade or the sundeck?

    As one of the dreamer/cranks who is busy making different boxes I firmly believe that national and local politics have shown themselves to be more or less impotent in helping us to build a fair and prosperous city in which all communities can thrive.

    I think there are lots of folk currently trying to make things happen outside of the usual channels – this blog and the network of ‘cultural activists’that congregate around it are a splendid example. There are others. And they are showing early promise….

  7. Mike, one of the problems with this debate is the idea that all we need is networks of ‘cultural activists’ and everything will be run so much better. Can’t wait to see mime artists doing the bins or bloggers offering social care. That’s the reality of local govt which I know is mundane but needs doing.

    So perhaps you can give me some examples that I may be unaware of where you couidl provide some clear evidence of this ‘early promise’..Not vague assertions but something tangible.

    1. So here is a tale told me after the Leeds Mayor debate. ‘The council are rubbish because they don’t re-cycle vegetable waste. I am forced to send it to landfill. They need to get their fingers out…’

      The subtext is astonishing! I can do nothing unless the council make it happen for me. I can blame the council for my own lack of efficacy.

      Now I am not anti public service, however it has done an awful lot to disempower individuals and communities who expect the council to ‘sort it all out’ and believe that with the right leader and the right constitution every little thing will be alright.

      I am a strong advocate for both bottom up and top down processes of development. Preferably working with a degree of mutuality.

      Hard evidence of early promise?

      Disrupting Poverty in Leeds has led to anti loan shark training in Chapeltown, 50 low paid workers being given benefits checks to ensure they are getting all their entitlements, support being given to the I Love West Leeds festival etc….

      Elsie has provided help and support to 30 or more individuals and organisations in Leeds and developed a network of 130 or so unusual suspects from across the city.

      Community Lovers Guide has attracted more than 50 submission and will help to put great Leeds community projects on the national map….

      I could go on….

      Do you mind letting me know who you are?

  8. Have to say I’ve had nothing through my door about Leeds possibly electing a Mayor and only became aware of it all via Twitter and Culture Vulture. Which begs the question – how many thousands of other residents have no clue what’s going on? Not a good start, nor a foundation for people making informed decisions.

  9. I was at the debate on 30 April. I find it very interesting that despite the fact that the pros and cons of elected mayors are, I think, genuinely very closely balanced, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps resolve themselves along quite clear party lines, with left-wingers who support participatory approaches ‘naturally’ averse to concentration of power and figurehead leadership – despite the potential benefits – while right-wingers promote principally the business advantages of an elected mayor and thus risk alienating the other side. The interesting thing about the good examples from around the world (and I have a good collection of evidence) is that the most respected and effective mayors have risen above party politics but have all been strong on social justice, have not wielded power for its own sake but have used their position to cut through bureaucratic nonsense that often arises from well-intentioned public sector checks and balances. By focusing on quality of life for the city’s people for the long term, not primarily on raising GVA per capita, they bring advantages for business as a by-product: a more appealing, safer, better integrated place. The best cases also have long continuity of service from mayors who have gained respect and whose citizens clearly think that they have done a good job.

  10. The Chair of the debate on Monday reported that his taxi driver had responded ‘what referendum for a Mayor?’ when told where he was taking his passenger. In four years no candidate of any party has come to my (almost inner-city) door to tell why why I should vote for them. The most obvious feature of Leeds is the low level of energy in ‘normal’ party politics. The council, most of whose members seem firmly opposed to the idea of a Mayor for Leeds, know that a low turnout means a No is more likely. In previous votes elsewhere a Yes followed debate conducted for many months across the cities. Well done the Culture Vulture and School of Art Architecture and Design at Leeds Metropolitan for organising Monday’s discussion but where has the debate been these last months? Almost a year ago a session organised by the Chamber of Commerce which heard compelling evidence from the Centre for Cities of what elected mayors can do to advance their cities was so poorly attended that the panel outnumbered the audience. On Monday the debate was good-humoured and apparently balanced, if inconclusive. But despite some spirited references by panel and audience to the crying need for leadership and communication within and across city boundaries, and mention of the inspiring parallels such as Curitiba in Brazil, the overall tone was ‘what will we get for our money?’. Admittedly the job description is hazy but the assumption was that this is some sort of administrative post with the purpose of saving money rather than an investment that for the cities that have understood the role is as crucial to its future as having a high speed rail connection or a university.

  11. Phil

    I agree, the mayoral campaign smacks of the ‘participation’ agenda – less concerned with the content of the politics (or ‘what’s in the box’) as with bolstering voter turn-out and ‘engaging’ (one of participation’s ugly sisters) the electorate. In other words, it’s yet another technical fix to the problems of depoliticisation.

    The ‘yes’ camp seem to be pinning their hopes on a mayor being more dynamic than a council leader, but that would be down to their politics and, lacking any, any initial enthusiasm would soon die off. One good thing to come out of the mayoral campaign though could be to urge council leaders themselves to act more like political leaders. They just need some policies that inspire.


  12. Chatting to the journalist of the Yorkshire Post in the pub afterwards, with his deeply worrying tale: he needed to interview a group of people who were a)politically engaged, b)econmically engaged and c)gobby. He decided upon market traders. Interviewed 80 across Y’shire. 1, thats ONE, know about the Mayoral elections…

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