Damage limitation to the fore as leadership candidates fight bore draw
The four candidates battling to become the next Labour leader of Birmingham city council squared up against each other in a two hour question and answer session at the second public hustings of the campaign last night. Chief blogger Paul Dale gives his verdict.
The event hosted by the CBSO Centre and organised by Chamberlain Files publisher RJF Public Affairs with the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail gave Ian Ward, John Clancy, Penny Holbrook and Barry Henley a chance to get their ideas across to an audience consisting of Labour members, councillors, cultural organisations, business leaders and the public.
While none of the candidates crashed, no one soared either. Most seemed to be intent on damage limitation, determined to say nothing too controversial and definitely not to be rude about their opponents.
Perhaps the low key approach reflected the regional Labour party’s continued suspicion about the desirability of shedding light on the council’s leadership election.
It was certainly a bore draw, which may have been the intention all along.
This was not a passionate meeting. Quite the reverse in fact. The audience never came to life and there were only three brief rounds of applause during 120 minutes, twice in support of scrapping the council’s ICT contract with Capita.
Perhaps the most extraordinary revelation of the night was the claim by each candidate that they had not offered cabinet or committee jobs to anyone in return for votes, which would if true make this the cleanest election in the history of elections.
So how did the candidates perform? Here’s my assessment:
The deputy council leader really had one point he wanted to hammer home whenever given the chance. And that was to suggest Birmingham city council is at great risk of being taken over by Government commissioners, and if that happened “all the ideas you have heard about tonight would amount to very little indeed”.
Ward’s implication, although he didn’t spell it out since all of the candidates appeared to have signed a pact not to criticise each other, was that the commissioners would be rushing in to Birmingham post-haste if John Clancy, Penny Holbrook or Barry Henley became leader.
This was because they are all inexperienced while Ward has the experience and is known and trusted to do the job by the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, apparently.
Ward took the line, also adopted by Penny Holbrook, that he was the only one who could avoid the commissioners because he understood and would quickly implement the Kerslake governance reforms, specifically building partnerships with other stakeholders and the third sector.
Ward’s problem, of course, is that he has been deputy council leader since 2012 and deputy leader of the Labour group for far longer so is absolutely to be held responsible with Sir Albert Bore for Labour’s share of the council’s failings, as set out by Kerslake. Sir Albert is resigning. Ian Ward wants his job. But Cllr Ward has a credibility issue.
When he said, for example, that the council is failing to meet half of its performance targets and suggested he as leader would shake things up, there will have been many people in the audience wondering why Ian Ward, who as deputy leader has direct responsibility for the performance targets, hadn’t already shaken things up.
When he said the council was in denial over Trojan Horse when the scandal broke, and afterwards, it would have been fair to ask why he didn’t speak out at the time.
Most incredibly of all, he suggested the West Midlands devolution deal wasn’t ambitious enough, but never managed to pluck up sufficient courage to demand that Sir Albert let him see a copy of the draft submission.
It appears that most of Ian Ward’s cabinet colleagues will back either John Clancy or Penny Holbrook in the leadership election. Ward could end up with very few votes indeed and will surely rue the day he decided not to stand against Sir Albert at the May 2015 Labour AGM, when he might have been successful or at the very least would have gained respect.
No one can accuse Cllr Clancy of lacking a manifesto. He has policies galore, which you would expect since he has been polishing his leadership bid for the past six or seven years.
There are a great many big ideas, ranging from free school meals to scrapping the Capita ICT contract to renegotiating the Amey highways deal, and possibly scrapping the cabinet and returning to a committee system.
He plans to utilise the local government pension fund and create a sovereign wealth fund from the council’s property and land assets, using the revenue to build thousands of new houses each year.
He wants to revolutionise the council’s devolution programme, moving decision making to community level and will appoint four assistant council leaders to drive a power to the people campaign. He wants to get out of the Council House from day one and show Birmingham that the council is serious about partnership working, and cares for all 40 wards rather than just the city centre.
He even has a compelling slogan – Every child, every citizen, every place matters.
And there is Clancy’s problem. His radical change programme at a time when the council is struggling to deliver the Kerslake reforms and lacks senior management capacity leaves an open door for his opponents to say ‘this is very dangerous because it will all take ages to implement and we haven’t got long to deliver Kerslake and avoid the commissioners’.
Even Clancy’s best friends would admit the stage-managed manner of last night’s hustings, with each candidate answering each question at some length, didn’t play to his strengths. He can deliver a tub-thumping single-issue speech in the council chamber, attacking his opponents with deadly barbs, but the more structured approach of Labour’s hustings did not suit him and there were occasions when he appeared to be weighed down with policy overload and found it difficult to get his ideas across concisely.
Councillor Holbrook, who with Ian Ward appears to represent the ‘change but not too much change’ camp, came armed with a number of soundbites and a ubiquitous ‘vision’.
These included “we can be first for partnerships, not telling people what to think”, “a city without a culture and arts offer is a city without a soul” and “I’m the only one who can keep out the commissioners”.
Most remarkably, she claimed leadership was “not about personal ambition” and she was only standing because she realised, presumably in some kind of Damascene conversion, she was the person who could save Birmingham.
She made much of her record on building up partnerships and said the challenges facing Birmingham were so severe that “only an outward facing leader can deliver”.
Rather artfully, given that her cabinet portfolio includes responsibility for the Library of Birmingham, Cllr Holbrook attempted to take credit for working hard to alleviate some of the £1.3 million budget cuts imposed earlier in the year – cuts which she, of course, pushed through cabinet and the council.
Along with Ian Ward, Cllr Holbrook faces a problem in that she has been a key part of Sir Albert’s administration and must therefore bear some responsibility for the lacklustre approach to delivering the Kerslake reforms, which has left Birmingham on the brink of rule by Government commissioners.
It is clear from what she has said publicly and from a leaked text message to friends that Cllr Holbrook really didn’t want to contest the leadership. It wasn’t something she ever thought she could or would do. Then, just as nominations opened, she appeared to summon up the courage to allow her name to go forward, although as she told the hustings “no one has coerced me into standing”.
It would be a remarkable achievement were she to win from such a stuttering start. Opponents have dubbed her the “Bore candidate”, but her approach seems to be very different to that of Sir Albert since she admits openly that “I can’t do it all on my own” and is making a big play for partnership working.
On presentation, delivery, oratorical ability and conciseness of thought, Henley walked it.
While the other candidates appeared nervous and stumbled at times, Henley spoke from the heart and gave us his version of the council’s failings. He was the only candidate to attract a ripple of applause from a largely unexcited audience, and the only one to describe himself as a socialist.
Sir Albert used patronage to appoint his mates to high office when they were unsuited to the job. The chief executive isn’t being held to account, The third sector doesn’t trust the council. Council decision making takes far too long and is “rubbish”. The council wasted £189 million on building a new library, racking up debt, when Manchester spent £20 million on improving their Victorian library “which is as good as ours”.
Henley, who was a fan of the former regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, criticised the region’s local enterprise partnerships which he said were led by big business that “don’t know what small businesses are”.
He played to the natural instincts of most Labour members by suggesting having a metro mayor was a “dangerous” gamble because you might “get a real stinker”.
Henley’s big idea is that as leader he would use his vast management experience to usher in a new era of efficiency by appointing people to cabinet posts who can actually deliver results, while freeing up chief officers to run the council.
He is not however going to be leader. Henley doesn’t have a manifesto, by his own admission hasn’t canvassed for votes, he interrupted his honeymoon to announce his candidature, and most tellingly of all has upset too many colleagues with a blunt assessment of their uselessness.
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