VOTERS in Yorkshire will head to the polls today for historic referendums that could see powerful elected mayors take charge of the region’s four largest cities, potentially sparking the biggest shake-up of regional politics in a generation.
Prime Minister David Cameron last night issued a final plea to people in Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Wakefield to “seize this opportunity” to change the way their cities are governed forever and vote “Yes” to directly-elected mayors in today’s polls.
It comes with his party facing a severe backlash in the local elections also taking place across Yorkshire and the UK today, following a torrid month for the Government in the aftermath of the Budget and re-ignition of the phone-hacking scandal.
Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are braced to lose swathes of seats on councils up and down the land as voters punish the Government for a series of gaffs and unpopular measures.
But Number 10 remains hopeful that at least some of the 10 cities holding referendums over directly-elected mayors will vote in favour, with the Prime Minister convinced that installing Boris Johnson-style leaders would give English cities a more powerful punch when competing for international investment.
“Our great Northern cities have the opportunity to get the leadership and focus that other cities around the world have in the great global race for jobs and investment,” Mr Cameron told the Yorkshire Post.
“I want Leeds to have a single person accountable for building on its reputation as a business and financial centre, bringing well-paid jobs into the area.
“I want Wakefield to have someone to bang the drum for the new university that so many people want – putting pressure on government ministers if they don’t get their way.
“I want Bradford to have a strong figure to lead the city’s development into a hub for UK media, building on the excellent National Media Museum.
“And I want Sheffield to have a powerful champion who can bring investment and jobs into the area.
“These mayoral referendums represent a once-in-a-generation chance to change the way these great Northern cities are run – to choose a strong accountable figure who is answerable for getting things done.
“I urge the people of Yorkshire to seize this opportunity.”
With little local polling having taken place, there is no clear indication of how the public will vote in any of the individual mayoral referendums.
But with Labour soaring ahead in the national opinion polls following the so-called “omni-shambles” that has engulfed the Government since its Budget in March, even senior Conservatives are admitting they face “a tough night” in the elections taking place in 184 councils across the land.
Labour leader Ed Miliband is determined to keep the focus on the national picture, and yesterday highlighted unpopular decisions such as the slashing of the top rate of tax and the Conservatives’ close links with senior figures at News International.
“We know where this Government’s priorities lie: for the rich and powerful,” Mr Miliband said. “We saw it in the Budget, we see it in their dealings with Rupert Murdoch.
“These elections matter because Labour is campaigning for a very different set of priorities.”
Mr Cameron, by contrast, issued a plea not to make the local votes a verdict on his Government.
“I recognise it’s a difficult time for families,” he said.
“I just hope that people will look at these elections and recognise it’s about electing your local council – who is going to keep the council tax down, who’s going to provide value for money, who’s going to look after your area?”
The one bright light for the Conservatives remains Boris Johnson, who looks set to defy the national polls and win a second term as Mayor of London ahead of his Labour rival Ken Livingstone.
The Tories could also claim a notable scalp in Yorkshire from their coalition partners.
Already the largest party by some distance on Calderdale Council, the Tories are kept out of power by a fragile Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition. With Lib Dem council leader Janet Battye battling to hold the seat she won by only 60 votes in 2008, it promises to be a close battle which could potentially go against the national trend.
Elsewhere, George Galloway’s Respect party is looking to build on his shock by-election victory in Bradford by winning a string of seats on the city council.