THE GOVERNMENT is preparing to rescue Tony Blair's showcase policy on elected mayors by forcing many more councils to hold referendums on the issue.
Referendums were held by six councils yesterday, including the Prime Minister's constituency of Sedgefield, in what has been called "Super Thursday" after the US voting model.
But even if some of the ballots reject the idea, ministers are determined to push on with it and believe that local councillors across the country are denying choice to the voters.
In an indication that the Government intends to get tough with town halls opposed to mayors, Nick Raynsford, the Local Government minister, has written to Southwark, Bradford and Dudley councils to warn that he is preparing to use reserve powers to compel them to hold ballots.
Mr Raynsford is considering action against several other city councils, probably Birmingham and Newcastle upon Tyne, where councillors have defied the Government.
Yesterday's round of referendums, the full results of which were expected today, took place in Brighton and Hove, the London borough of Lewisham, Middlesbrough, North Tyneside, Hartlepool and Sedgefield. With North Tyneside the home constituency of Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Local Government, "no" votes both there and in Sedgefield would be embarrassing for the Government.
Ministers were hoping that even a couple of "yes" votes would help to build momentum towards spreading the idea to every part of England.
Mr Blair himself sees directly elected mayors as an invaluable means of regenerating local democracy and restoring civic pride, as well as ending the "one-party states" that Labour has run in some town halls for a generation.
He was delighted that voters in Doncaster, where the Labour council had been tarnished by the "Donnygate" corruption scandal, voted for a fresh start last month.
The high profile of the New York Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, during the terrorism crisis has also encouraged British supporters of an elected mayor system.
Under the Local Government Act 2000, all councils have held public consultation exercises this year asking people whether they wanted referendums on whether to have directly elected mayors. Unfortunately for Downing Street, apart from "yes" votes in Doncaster and Watford, recent polls in towns and cities have not been encouraging. Moves to bring in elected mayors have been defeated at Kirklees in West Yorkshire, Sunderland, Gloucester, Cheltenham and Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Mr Raynsford has accused councillors of opposing change to hang on to their "nice and cosy jobs", a charge that was underlined by the failure to secure mayoral votes in the big cities. …