04 May 2011

If AV is defeated tomorrow, it is the city of Leicester which will herald the revolutionary constitutional change of the year.

Without much national fanfare, Leicester will tomorrow become the largest city in England outside London to elect a mayor to run its affairs. In doing so, it could pave the way for Birmingham and other major cities outside the capital to follow suit in short order.

Leicester's council voted a few months ago to change to the mayoral system. This short-circuited a process which in Birmingham and 10 other major cities is requiring referendums. These will be held in May 2012, on whether to make a similar change in defiance of the wishes of the existing elected councils, which are opposed to it.

The Leicester field

The hot favourite to become Mayor is Labour’s Sir Peter Soulsby, one of the city’s MPs and a previous leader of the Council. Peter Soulsby’s decision to leave Westminster – a by-election for his Leicester South seat is also being held tomorrow – is another first: the first Mayor of a town or city outside London who is a former MP for the locality in question.


Leicester's skyline (photo courtesy of kev747)

There is a good London pedigree for this: both Ken and Boris were previously MPs, although in Boris’s case for Henley. Their decision to leave the Commons for the mayoralty was – like Peter Soulsby’s – a testament to the perceived power and profile of the mayoral office.

Neither regretted the move and other MPs are watching closely. Bob Ainsworth, the former Defence Secretary, has already said that he would leave his Coventry seat to contest the mayoralty of his city if the post is created in next year’s referendum.

The mayoral election has grabbed the attention of Leicester voters far more than their parliamentary by-election let alone the AV referendum (which was not mentioned by anyone when we visited on Monday.)

There are 11 candidates. These include a highly credible independent in the shape of Rick Moore, president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and the city’s longest-serving JP, who a local poll puts in second place.

The candidates have done battle in a dozen hustings meetings. The largest, organised by De Montfort University – named after Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, who called England’s first directly elected Parliament in his battle against Henry III – was packed and required an overflow meeting, a rarity for a local election hustings event.

The second most powerful local government figure in England

By the end of this week the Mayor of Leicester will be arguably the most powerful local government figure in England after Boris Johnson. The Guardian recently ran an editorial entitled Elected Mayors: Where Leicester Leads.

"Will the prospect of being a hands-on mayor soon confer more political clout than the uncertain chance of a cabinet seat?" the paper asked.

The Institute will report regularly on Leicester and its new mayor, so watch this space.

This blog post was co-written by Andrew Adonis and Sam Sims

Photo courtesy of Kev747's Flickr photostream