Let’s start with the obvious. Sir Albert Bore is not everyone’s cup of tea. Which politician is?
Even his intensely loyal band of supporters can find the new leader of Birmingham City Council a difficult man to work with. He has been accused in the past of losing interest too quickly, failing to see through major projects and spending far too much time in Europe where he is a vice-chairman of the Committee of the Regions.
Add to that his current post as chairman of the Birmingham University NHS Hospitals Trust, for which he is paid £55,000 for a three-day week and has given every indication that he expects to continue while also leading the council, and it is easy to see why Sir Albert is regarded with acute suspicion by some Labour councillors.
He’s not even formally been appointed council leader yet, but is already making the political weather in a typically Albert fashion. Since the council elections on May 4 propelled Labour back into power, Sir Albert has announced far-reaching changes to the way the council will work, a slimmed down cabinet with oddly-named portfolios that cut across traditional departments, and a radical shift towards devolution by farming out a raft of new responsibilities and bigger budgets to 10 district committees.
The appointment of his cabinet team stunned colleagues. There were angry words and reportedly some tears when Catharine Grundy, who held the shadow portfolio for Children, Young People and Families and is regarded as something of an expert in the field, was overlooked in favour of Brigid Jones who has been a councillor for only a year and has never held a major public office. Quite some promotion, to place an ‘unknown’ in charge of Britain’s largest local education authority.
Another young, relatively inexperienced councillor, James McKay, was appointed cabinet member for a Green, Safe and Smart City, to the general astonishment of his colleagues.
Shadow cabinet members Narinder Kooner, Muhammed Afzal and Shafique Shah did not make it into the new cabinet. Shah was appointed Audit Committee chairman, but almost immediately resigned to rejoin the back benches.
Two bright councillors who thought they were in with a chance of joining the cabinet – Barry Henley and Tim Evans – were rejected and also find themselves outside of the executive where they will no doubt be twiddling their thumbs and looking for something to do.
The anti-Bore camp can be divided into two factions. The first, as you would expect, consists of the Tories and Lib Dems who see the new council leader as an unprincipled, scheming, Machiavellian figure who would willingly sell his own grandmother for a few votes. The second faction lies within the 77-strong Labour group where an indeterminate number of members see Albert as an unprincipled, scheming….well, you get the picture.
Both factions have sought to present Bore’s cabinet reforms as a crudely calculated stunt to divide and rule. It is also being claimed that the appointment of young high-fliers was designed to disguise the fact that the new leader of Birmingham city Council is pushing 70 and has been around for a long time.
Taken together, the unexpected appointments by Sir Albert and the structural changes, the aim is to suggest that “something very radical and important is happening when nothing could be further from the truth”, one sceptical Labour member told me.
It is quite possible that the portfolios mean all things to all people and leave much room for arguments over who does what. How, for instance, does the cabinet member for social cohesion and equality dovetail with the cabinet members for commissioning, contracting and improvement and a green, safe and smart city? Who is in charge of housing? Who is running sport and culture?
One allegation, which I find difficult to believe, is that Sir Albert has deliberately chosen a complex cabinet system to ensure that colleagues “fight like rats in a sack” and don’t have the time or inclination to mount any kind of leadership challenge. If he was daft enough to do that, he’d be condemning his administration to failure from the start.
Sir Albert’s explanation, surely more plausible, is that the council executive must try to cut across traditional ‘silo mentality’, which for decades has pitted department against department and cabinet member against cabinet member while ensuring that little in the way of change ever happens.
And yet, the claims will not die down. With Sir Albert Bore, there is always an element of ‘what did he mean by that?’ to any policy pronouncement he cares to make. Almost nothing is taken on face value and some of his most intractable opponents would be inclined to double-check on a calendar if they asked Albert what day of the week it was.
A meeting of the Labour group planned for tonight (May 21) has been cancelled. Why? Because Sir Albert and his lieutenants want to “avoid large gatherings of disaffected comrades for a couple of months”, according to one critic.
The group’s next scheduled get-together is on June 11, the night England meet France in the European football championships, so a very brief meeting is likely with no time for unwanted resolutions or controversial debates. It won’t be until July that a ‘normal’ Labour group meeting is held, where Sir Albert is likely to come under pressure to quit his hospital job in order to reflect the Labour group constitution which states that being leader of the city council is a full time occupation.
We’ve been here before, of course. When Sir Albert last became council leader in 1999, ousting left-winger Theresa Stewart, there were more than 80 Labour councillors in an unruly and some would say ungovernable group which spent five years attempting to sack Sir Albert and opposing almost every major policy initiative put forward by the council leader.
Sir Albert saw off five leadership challenges in four years, until Labour’s regional office stepped in to prevent anyone standing against him in the run-up to the 2004 council elections.
Let’s briefly remind ourselves of the largely Blairite policies he espoused to solve the problems of a city where social services, children’s services, schools and council housing were all failing.
He backed the new cabinet-leader system when many of his Labour colleagues did not; he was one of the first supporters of an elected mayor for Birmingham (candidate A. Bore, obviously) when almost all councillors hated the idea; he wanted to place the control of 75,000 council houses under independent trusts; he proposed similar trust arrangements for the council’s decaying old people’s homes; he put in place the contracting out to the private sector of the council’s loss-making housing repairs teams.
So those who want to paint Sir Albert Bore as some kind of reactionary figure from the past intent on doing everything possible to keep himself in power are, in my estimation, quite wrong. His previous and current approach to politics suggests a radical nature which is often out of kilter with his more cautious socialist colleagues.
Whether the administration he now leads improves on the largely dismal 1999-2004 record depends pretty much on whether a large Labour group is willing to forget about the past and give its leader a chance. Unfortunately, the murmurings of disapproval since May 3 suggest there is at least a chance of history repeating itself and that the new leader will have to put as much effort into controlling Labour councillors as running the city of Birmingham, which would be a shame.
- Backbench Labour rebellion prompts hasty re-write of leadership rules in ‘two-jobs Bore’ row (thechamberlainfiles.com)