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Byrne-Bore joint Birmingham mayor bid is dream ticket for some, nightmare scenario for others

Byrne-Bore joint Birmingham mayor bid is dream ticket for some, nightmare scenario for others

🕔04.Apr 2012

Say what you will about Liam Byrne, but there’s no doubt that the former Chief Secretary’s decision to seek the Labour nomination to run for mayor of Birmingham has injected fresh life into what was turning out to be a rather dull contest – despite the odd hissy fit.

The entire dynamics of the selection process have been changed by Mr Byrne’s dramatic late entry. No longer are Labour members faced with a choice between the new in the shape of former Erdington MP Sion Simon, the old in the form of veteran council Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore, and something in-between Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart.

The choice as it stands at the moment boils down to Mr Simon, Mrs Stuart, and Mr Byrne with Sir Albert Bore as his deputy mayor running mate. Mr Simon’s supporters were quick to claim that Mr Byrne’s intervention was not a “game changer”, but they surely spoke out too openly and too soon.

Labour’s regional office will finalise the shortlist if a referendum on May 3 delivers a vote in favour of a mayor, and that decision will have to be endorsed by the National Executive Committee. There is a rumour flying around that the shortlist will consist of just two candidates, with Mrs Stuart almost assured a place because she is the only woman to put her name forward.

If there is to be a shortlist of two, the heavyweight backers of Mr Simon and Mr Byrne respectively will face a gargantuan struggle behind the scenes to keep their man in contention. Mr Simon, it is claimed, has the backing of Ed Balls and Tom Watson, but Mr Byrne may be able to garner support from a wider range of Shadow Cabinet colleagues and party grandees, including Lord Mandelson.

The shortlist decision, if it involves reducing three candidates to two, will inevitably be seen as another variation on Labour’s civil war between the Blairites, as personified by Mr Byrne, and the Brownites, although Mr Simon would not necessarily see himself as being firmly in the camp of the former prime minister. And if the shortlist is two, there will be almost no possibility of second preference votes benefitting either candidate since one person is likely to get more than 50 per cent of votes cast.

Gossip about the forthcoming contest was rife behind the scenes at the last Birmingham City Council meeting before the local elections on May 3. Chamberlain Files took the temperature in the members’ tearoom, where there appeared to be little support for the Byrne-Albert ticket.

One Labour councillor strode into the room and announced: “I will pay £5 a head for everyone in here you can find who is backing Byrne.” He kept his money intact.

A colleague was busy rubbishing an appearance last Sunday by Mr Byrne and Sir Albert, who turned up to assist a Labour election canvassing team. The real purpose, it was claimed, was for Sir Albert to show Mr Byrne a leaflet, a letter box and give instructions on how to post one through the other.

Details also seeped through about a highly-charged meeting of the Labour group on the eve of the council meeting, where Sir Albert was given a rare standing ovation. Members, many of whom have spent their entire careers trying to oust Sir Albert as leader, were moved to express comradely good wishes following an emotional speech by Ladywood councillor Carl Rice.

Coun Rice, it is reported, claimed that Sir Albert had been “stuffed” by the decision to run the mayoral selection process at exactly the time when the balance of power on the council will shift back to Labour – returning Sir Albert as council leader, albeit only until the mayoral election in November. Sir Albert’s selfless decision to put Birmingham first by dropping his mayoral ambitions to concentrate on forming a council administration was exemplary, according to Rice.

Coun Rice went on to suggest that the Labour Party owed Sir Albert a “debt of gratitude” and that this ought to be recognised with a sustained round of applause. Labour, being above all else a sentimental party, responded in the time-honoured fashion.

Sadly, the good wishes for Albert did not extend to financial recompense. One councillor had the temerity to raise the matter of the £60,000 salary Sir Albert receives for chairing the University Hospitals NHS Trust in Birmingham, and demanded to know whether the new leader of the council could possibly juggle running the QE hospital with running Birmingham.

The official answer was that Labour group rules state that being leader of the council is a full time job, and it would not therefore be possible to hold a second time-consuming. This is unlikely to unduly worry Sir Albert, since the leadership of the council will be severely relegated in finance and prestige terms if Birmingham gets a mayor – and no doubt he will get Mr Byrne’s approval to carry out deputy mayor functions as well as chairing an NHS trust.

With five weeks to go until the mayoral referendum and seven weeks until Labour chooses its shortlist, the following themes appear to be emerging among Birmingham’s political classes:

  • Most Labour councillors and many other figures in the local party think that Mr Byrne has left it too late to launch a challenge capable of seeing off Mr Simon, unless of course steps are taken by those at the very top to exclude Mr Simon from the shortlist.
  • Mr Byrne is regarded as associated too much with New Labour and is thought not to possess the ability to “tack leftwards” in order to pick up support in left wing wards with the highest party membership, such as Moseley & Kings Heath.
  • Sir Albert’s decision to withdraw from the race is seen as a tactical blunder. He could have won through allocation of second preference votes. The biggest beneficiary is likely to be Gisela Stuart, who is virtually certain to make the shortlist.
  • The possibility of hard-left Respect party running a mayoral candidate following the Bradford West by-election has given fresh hope to potential Tory candidate Mike Whitby. He believes Respect would take thousands of votes from Labour, leaving the Conservatives in a position to come up on the rails.
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