Socialist campaign

May 2002 will see electors living in the Middlesbrough local authority area voting for a directly elected mayor as part of a New Labour experiment in local government. Blair's party, initially keen on this innately anti-democratic form of representation which places inordinate power in the hands of an elected local monarch, later began to think twice - not on the basis of its lack of accountability, but as a result of the fiasco that led to the election of Ken Livingstone as an independent mayor of London. Despite limited publicity for last year's referendum to implement the change, turnout was comparatively high at 34% - this is a rock-solid Labour area, where local elections have seen less than 20% bothering to vote on numerous occasions. The proposal was accepted by 29,067 votes to 5,422, and it was now too late for a change of heart. The reason for the increased turnout was undoubtedly the 'Ray Mallon factor'. 'Robocop' Mallon certainly cannot be dismissed as a bland, party machine politician. He entered the race while still facing charges of misconduct from his time in office as numero uno at Cleveland police. Mallon's period in charge saw Middlesbrough in the national spotlight, as politicians from Tony Blair to Jack Straw rushed to be associated with his 'zero tolerance' policing. Mallon's eccentric public profile was actually enhanced by the allegations, even though New Labour ditched him as soon as they surfaced. Robocop's declared intent to stand as an independent has certainly rattled the Labour Party, who run the borough and local politics as a private fiefdom. The subtext of police committee chair Ken Walker's declaration following the result of the referendum, that candidates would find "no easy answers to the issues they will face if they come into office" was clear: better stick with what you know (no-one could realistically accuse New Labour of raising working class people's expectations). In truth the Labour mafia are petrified of another embarrassing Livingstone-type debacle. Mallon, a self-declared "socialist with a hard edge", mixes references to Middlesbrough's social deprivation (indices usually place the borough in the bottom three across the UK) with a 'no-nonsense' approach to crime, playing on people's fears in an area affected by poverty and high drug usage. Despite his self-description and working class background there can be no doubt that Mallon is a crude, rightwing populist without any connection to the workers' movement. It is unfortunate that some people on the Labour and trade union left appear to see something progressive in his politics that are as opportunistic as that other well known 'independent socialist', the mayor in London. But at least the support for Livingstone had the potential to provoke a split to Labour's left. The referendum ought to have been a gift horse of a campaigning opportunity for the local Socialist Alliance. A local SA meeting passed a resolution condemning the sham democracy that an elected mayor would provide and urged an active boycott campaign. However, the events of September 11 and subsequent campaigning work against the war, alongside apathy on the part of many comrades, meant that the issue was neglected and we have thus lost considerable time. Nevertheless, comrades in Teesside Socialist Alliance, meeting this week, are clear that we must put forward a working class and democratic alternative. This promises to be a campaign with a high profile, and we must take the opportunity to build the SA and present our politics to as many people as possible. Lawrie Coombs