Birmingham city council elections: runners and riders, the seats to watch
The local government elections on May 5 will be the first big test of voter sentiment since the General Election and a pivotal moment for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, writes Paul Dale.
Metropolitan councils, unitary authorities and district councils across England are up for grabs, as well as seats in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. And in a fascinating sideshow, four mayoral elections will take place in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford.
No doubt by the time the dust has settled, all political parties will find something to brag about.
But the stakes for Labour could hardly be higher. The party is coming off the back of a disastrous 2015 General Election defeat with a new hard-left leader who does not have the support of most of his MPs and appears determined to commit the party to policies that could charitably be described as less than voter friendly.
To make matters worse, Labour will be defending council seats it won four years ago in 2012 in the aftermath of George Osborne’s infamous ‘omnishambles’ budget. Labour did very well back then, winning hundreds of seats from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and taking control of several councils, including Birmingham.
Those seats must now be defended, and judging by national opinion polls putting the Conservatives comfortably ahead, Mr Corbyn’s party could be in for something of a hiding at the polls.
Net losses of 200 council seats in England are probably about the best Labour can hope for as well as the loss of about half a dozen councils including Redditch and Cannock Chase, according to private research presented to the shadow cabinet.
That would be bad enough, although victory by Labour’s Sadiq Khan in the London mayor election would certainly give Mr Corbyn something to shout about and might for a while divert attention from losses elsewhere.
If net losses of council seats rise above 300, then the knives will be out for the Labour leader.
A third of Birmingham city council’s 120 seats are being contested. This will be the last election by thirds, with the council switching to all-out polls once every four years from 2018.
Four years ago, Labour enjoyed a famous night of success in Birmingham, gaining 20 seats and taking back control of the city council after eight years of rule by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The Conservatives lost 11 seats, reducing the size of their group by almost a third, and the Liberal Democrats lost nine seats.
Labour’s share of the vote in Birmingham was the highest for several years at 51 per cent while the Conservatives were on 24 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 14 per cent.
The new Labour city council leader, Sir Albert Bore, returning for his second stint in charge, had a healthy majority in the council chamber. But in little more than three years he was out, forced to resign after losing the confidence of his cabinet, and replaced as council leader by John Clancy.
The 2016 elections will be every much a test for Cllr Clancy as for Mr Corbyn. Both will hope for something to celebrate, and in Birmingham Labour’s troops prepare to march into action after a year most of them would probably rather forget.
The past 12 months has been dominated by fallout from the Kerslake Review, which exposed decades of inadequate leadership and poor decision making at the council and resulted in the imposition of the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel.
Sir Albert’s long goodbye was played out against a backdrop of critical reports from the panel about slow progress in delivering Kerslake’s recommendations and clear warnings from Communities Secretary Greg Clark that commissioners might have to be sent in to run the council if things did not improve rapidly – a threat that has still not been lifted.
On top of that, the council is delivering yet more public spending cuts, about £90 million in 2016-17 and £250 million over the next four years. The savings are being forced on the authority as a result of the Government’s austerity programme, but it remains to be seen whether voters blame the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne for axed services or the Labour-run council when they get to the ballot box.
Starting position on the council: Lab 78, Con 30, LD 11, Ind 1
Labour are defending 28 seats, the Conservatives eight seats and the Liberal Democrats four seats.
Seats to watch:
It doesn’t get much closer than two votes, and that was Conservative Eddie Freeman’s wafer-thin majority over Labour’s Steve Booton in 2012. However, Booton did win in Weoley in 2015 to give Labour one out of the three ward seats. The Tories will be fighting hard to retain this seat.
Labour’s Brett O’Reilly beat former Tory cabinet member Les Lawrence by 61 votes in 2012. The two other Northfield seats are Conservative-held. This is a part of Birmingham where Labour will be looking to consolidate gains.
Liberal Democrat Jerry Evans managed to hang on here against the odds in 2012, beating Labour’s Nabilo Bana by 95 votes. But Labour already hold the two other Springfield seats and will be hoping to make it three.
A key battleground for Labour and Conservative parties. The Tories won here unexpectedly in 2014 at a by-election caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Cath Grundy. Gary Sambrook picked up the seat by an impressive 405-vote majority. The Labour candidate this time happens to be the mother of Cllr Josh Jones, chair of the Erdington district committee. This is probably the number one target seat for Labour.
Always an interesting tussle here between Tory and Labour. Veteran Conservative campaigner Deirdre Alden, who has represented this ward for 16 years, held on in 2012 to beat Labour’s Dennis Minnis by 241 votes.
Classic marginal territory in east Birmingham. Labour’s John O’Shea defeated Lib Dem councillor Roger Harmer by 177 votes here in 2012. Harmer managed to win in Acocks Green in 2014. The third Acocks Green seat is held by Labour cabinet member Stewart Stacey. O’Shea will be in trouble if there is a general swing against Labour across Birmingham.
Labour holds two out of the three Kings Norton seats, and the Conservatives have the third. Valerie Seabright, auntie of deputy Labour party leader Tom Watson, is defending for Labour. She beat Conservative Barbara Wood here by 283 in 2012
Phil Walkling beat Tory Nigel Dawkins by 307 votes in 2012 to secure a toehold for Labour in this traditionally Conservative ward.
The sensation of 2012 saw Labour’s Rob Pocock win in Sutton, beating Tory councillor Malcolm Cornish by an impressive 805 votes. It was the first Labour victory in Sutton Coldfield in living memory. Can Pocock, a redoubtable local campaigner, hold on in 2016?
A familiar Labour v Tory battleground in south Birmingham. Jess Phillips for Labour beat Conservative Ken Wood by 533 votes and subsequently went on to become MP for Yardley at the 2015 General Election. Labour held all three Longbridge seats until Cllr Ian Cruise resigned the whip and sat as an Independent.
A famous victory here in 2012 when Labour’s Elaine Williams beat veteran Tory councillor John Alden by 823 votes. Alden managed to win in Harborne in 2014 to keep the Conservative flag flying. But the two other Harborne seats are held by Labour, something that was unthinkable a decade ago.
Is there any fight left in the Liberal Democrats? This is a target seat in the party’s former stronghold. Labour’s Zafar Iqbal is defending. He beat Lib Dem Daphne Gaved by 62 votes in 2012.
One of the few three-way seats in Birmingham. Barry Bowles for Labour beat Tory Bob Harvey by 486 votes in 2012. But the Lib Dems have also won here in the past.
Stechford and Yardley North
Neil Eustace, a Liberal Democrat councillor for 30 years, is defending the seat he has held since 1986. But Eustace will be concerned because Labour’s Basharat Dad won for Labour here last year. Eustace’s majority is 894.
The scene of many highly-charged battles between Labour and the Liberal Democrats over the years. Labour’s Nagina Kauser won here in 2012, defeating Lib Dem Ayoub Khan by 444 votes. Labour hold all three Aston seats at the moment.
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