Birmingham and Coventry voters prepare for referendums

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Image caption Should there be a Ken for Coventry or a Boris for Birmingham?

Q: What do Tuesday, 6 March and Thursday, 15 November have in common?

A: They're both "super" days, whatever your opinion of what actually happens during the course of them!

The first, in less than three weeks' time, is "Super Tuesday" in the US Presidential election.

While on this side of the pond, the second date will see elections not just for 44 local police commissioners but also, potentially, for a new breed of executive mayors.

Such a transformation in the running of our major cities is subject to the outcome of referendums on Thursday, 3 May.

Power struggle

Here in the Midlands, voters in our two biggest cities, Birmingham and Coventry, will be invited to answer 'yes' or 'no' to the idea of a directly elected mayor.

In Stoke, they already have: with a decisive "yes". And "no"!

In 2002, the Independent Mike Wolfe secured a narrow victory over the former Labour MP George Stevenson to become the first city's first directly-elected mayor.

But six years later, his Labour successor Mark Meredith had his job unceremoniously abolished after a referendum prompted by a storm of protests led by campaigners urging Stoke to "Get Rid of the Elected Mayor".

Stoke had devised its own peculiar version of the mayoral role, working alongside a council manager and therefore open to the charge that too much power was concentrated in too few hands.

Birmingham and Coventry are being invited to consider the more tried and tested mayor-plus-cabinet system.

Crucial questions

But a 'yes' vote in either city or both would trigger yet more questions.

1. What powers should be the new mayor have?

Ministers envisage economic regeneration being top of the list with transport and housing also prime policy priorities.

But it would be up to the candidates to sell their rival 'wish lists' to the electorate.

2. Councillors... who needs them?

What exactly would be left for them to do, if a new 'city boss' were to hold sway in key policy areas, hitherto their own exclusive preserves?

Scrutinising the mayor and standing up for their own areas would probably become their principal responsibilities.

3. Localism?

Elected mayors are an important part of the government's big idea to encourage "bottom up" solutions in place of "top down" ones.

But how could the mayor keep genuinely close to local communities while at the same time being expected to champion the city to the wider world?

A "no" vote in May would render all the talk about possible contenders irrelevant.

Runners and riders

At the time of writing these are among the likeliest contenders.

Birmingham's candidates

The timing in terms of the electoral cycle focuses most attention on the question of who will secure the Labour nomination.

So it is no surprise that three prominent figures have declared they would let their names go forward.

Sion Simon (Labour)

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A 'Brownite' junior minister in the last government, he stood down as MP for Birmingham Erdington at the last election specifically to concentrate on preparing his campaign for the job.

He has spent the two years since then building up support among the local party members who will decide the nomination.

Gisela Stuart MP (Labour)

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Another former minister, the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston has a high local and national profile.

She retained her marginal seat at the last election partly because of the strength of her local party machine.

Hers was the "weather vane" declaration in 1997 pointing the way to New Labour's landslide.

Councillor Sir Albert Bore (Labour)

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The leader of the largest single party on Birmingham City Council is confident the May elections will see Labour overturn the eight-year-old Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.

This would restore him to head the council which he last led in 2004.

Mike Whitby (Conservative)

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The Conservative leader of the Con/Lib Dem 'Progressive Partnership' which has ruled Birmingham for the last eight years has been an inveterate opponent of the idea of elected mayors.

But there is mounting speculation that in the event of a contest, he would put himself forward for the party nomination.

John Hemming MP (Liberal Democrat)

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The Birmingham Yardley MP is a former leader of the Liberal Democrat group and one of the architects of the coalition.

He too has been an outspoken critic of elected mayors, but again there is speculation that in the event he would be prepared to let his name go forward.

Councillor Paul Tilsley (Liberal Democrat)

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Widely seen as a unifying public figure after the summer riots.

The leader of the junior partners in the ruling coalition may consider standing if John Hemming decides against it.

Salma Yaqoob (Respect)

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The party leader and former Birmingham City councillor finished a strong second in the Hall Green constituency at the last general election, achieving a 12% swing from Labour.

She has a national profile, having appeared regularly on TV programmes including BBC One's Question Time.

She is also a spokesperson for the Birmingham Central Mosque.

Bob Warman (Independent)

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The veteran Central ITV presenter is reportedly considering his options.

Besides his on-air role he also has a successful business career.

It is understood that he is being encouraged to stand by members of the business community who favour the idea of a non party-political mayor.

Clare Short (Independent Labour)

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Having resigned, first, from the Cabinet and then from the Labour Party the former MP for Birmingham Ladywood stood down from Parliament at the last election.

But she has since indicated that there may be circumstances in which she might let her name go forward.

Coventry's contenders

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The Labour controlled council recently voted overwhelmingly against an elected mayor.

But that will not remove it from the government's list of cities where referendums will be held on Thursday, 3 May.

So far, however, the former Cabinet minister Bob Ainsworth, the Labour MP for Coventry North East, is the only high profile politician who has expressed an interest in contesting the nomination.

Your views

Do you think our major cities need what supporters say would be "a heavy-hitter at the top of whom even ministers were afraid"?

Or is it, as critics maintain, "a recipe for a power freak, concentrating too much power into too few hands"?

I would love to know your views - click on comments (below).

And I hope you will join me for more on this on the Sunday Politics at 12.00 on BBC One on Sunday, 19 February 2012.

Follow me on Twitter PatrickBurnsBBC