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Could it be third time lucky for Councillor Clancy?

Could it be third time lucky for Councillor Clancy?

🕔14.Jan 2015

Friends of John Clancy, the Quinton backbencher and serial leadership challenger, believe he is in the best possible position to overthrow Sir Albert Bore and become the leader of Birmingham city council in May, writes Paul Dale.

Of course, they would say that. Similar confidence-boosting comments were issued by the Clancy camp in 2013 and 2014. On both occasions Clancy failed by some distance to topple Sir Albert, although the margin of defeat is narrowing.

In 2013 Bore held on comfortably at the Labour AGM by 51 votes to 23. That came as a huge shock to Sir Albert’s supporters who had let it be known they doubted whether Clancy would reach even double figures.

Greater efforts were made to see off the challenger a year later with the aim of reducing support for Clancy to single figures which, it was thought, would put paid to his leadership ambitions for good. But, significantly, Clancy did rather better in 2014 when the voting figures were 47 to 27 in Sir Albert’s favour. Clearly, then, just over one third of the Labour group has no confidence in its leader.

Can Clancy pick up the 39 votes he needs to take the leadership? All he has to do is persuade a dozen of his colleagues to switch allegiance, assuming he can retain all of his existing backers. It is, though, a big ask.

Sir Albert has fought off every challenge to his leadership since 1999, sometimes by small margins. On each occasion without exception the claims being made by the challenger about why change is needed boil down to alleged aloofness by the council leader and unwillingness to work out policy jointly with Labour backbenchers.

These were the criticisms laid at Sir Albert from 1999 to 2004 when he first ran the council. Much the same was said about Mike Whitby, the council’s Tory leader from 2004 to 2012. Many people would reflect that this is an obvious result of the cabinet-leader system – a halfway house between committees and an elected mayor – and that a difficult relationship between leader and backbenchers will remain the same whoever was in charge.

One of Clancy’s manifesto policies is to examine abandoning the cabinet in favour of a return to the old committee system, a proposal that may be gaining some traction among Labour councillors who regularly complain about being ignored in the decision making process.

Various recent developments at the council could play in Clancy’s favour.

The first is the approach of the really tough decisions about public spending cuts, with a further £300 million or so to be found over the next three years. Areas of expenditure close to Labour’s heart and soul are now under consideration for scaling back or even abolition and these include children’s centres, the youth service, museums and community libraries.

Another area of difficulty for Sir Albert is widespread uncertainty about the future role of the city council, particularly in light of the imposition by the Government of commissioners to oversee children’s social services and schools post-Trojan Horse.

The feeling by many proud Birmingham elected councillors that they have somehow been slapped in the face very publicly should not be under-estimated. They are wounded and looking for someone to blame for the way the city is being used as a political punch bag.

One really big difference between 2014 and 2015 is of course the Kerslake Review by Sir Bob Kerslake which tore into the council’s dysfunctional nature over many years and highlighted a litany of poor decision making and head in the sand attitude to difficult issues by all political parties.

The subsequent handling of Kerslake by Sir Albert is causing extreme friction among Labour councillors, particularly backbenchers who fear they risk being frozen out of decision making on many of the most important issues – boundary changes and the future of devolution including district committees and ward committees.

Alarm bells began to ring when the normally sure footed Sir Albert appeared to make several tactical blunders when speaking at the January full council meeting and a subsequent scrutiny committee.

He seemed to signal the end of district committees, which was news to most of his colleagues, and sought to downplay the Kerslake Review by insisting that he had in any case commissioned it (actually, it was jointly commissioned by Eric Pickles and Sir Albert), that it wasn’t at all critical of the council executive (it certainly was) that it was based on out of date economic statistics, and that it was up to the council whether Kerslake’s recommendations were enacted or not.

He followed up by adding it wasn’t necessary to “dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’” and if the Government didn’t like Birmingham’s reaction to Kerslake it could always take further action.

His comments prompted Carl Rice, chair of the main scrutiny committee and a Bore loyalist, to plead publicly with Sir Albert to involve all 120 councillors in preparing the Kerslake implementation plan, which will be approved at the cabinet on February 19.

Such comments from the leader could play into Clancy’s hands and lend further ammunition to a growing chorus that Sir Albert is in denial about the seriousness of Kerslake’s report – a claim vehemently rebutted by the leader.

Ironically, the live streaming of scrutiny committee and council meetings, introduced and championed by Sir Albert, could make life more difficult for him with archived clips of his Kerslake remarks already being gleefully relayed to colleagues by Clancy supporters.

The city council elections on May 7 may prove problematic. The seats being defended were last fought in 2011 when Labour support against a crumbling Tory-Lib Dem coalition locally and nationally was running high. Three Birmingham cabinet members are at risk of losing their seats – deputy leader Ian Ward in Shard End as well as James McKay in Harborne and Stewart Stacey in Acocks Green.

Ward, McKay and Stacey can all be expected to vote for Sir Albert to continue as Labour group and council leader if they are re-elected. Should they fail to be returned, Sir Albert’s 2014 figure of 47 votes immediately falls to 44.

It is worth keeping a careful eye on the selection of Labour candidates to fight the 2015 council elections. A number of Bore loyalists are, it is claimed, at risk of being deselected and replaced by candidates more amenable to Clancy. Of course, such claims have been made in the past but there has been no discernible difference to the leadership voting pattern.

Unusually, on this occasion, Sir Albert is under pressure from Birmingham’s Labour MPs who have urged him to scrap a £35 annual fee to households for collecting and disposing of green waste. The so-called garden tax, it is claimed, contributed to Labour’s relatively poor performance at the 2014 council elections. Cllr Clancy has spoken out strongly against the green waste fee while Sir Albert is sticking to his guns and refusing to back down.

The scene is set therefore for a potentially close leadership election if the Labour AGM is presented with a straight fight between Sir Albert and Cllr Clancy. Should Ian Ward lose his seat, however, a second election for the deputy position no doubt between a Sir Albert nominee and a Clancy supporter will take place.

Uncertainty and confusion arising from the departure of Ward, seen by many as the natural successor to Sir Albert, might encourage other challengers for the leadership to break cover and throw their hat into the ring on an Anyone But Clancy ticket.

On the other hand, the usual thing might happen. Clancy challenges Bore, there’s a lot of hot air, but the Great Survivor Sir Albert lives on to fight another day.

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