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Edgbaston election tussle kicks off, but it could be hard Lines for Labour again

Edgbaston election tussle kicks off, but it could be hard Lines for Labour again

🕔06.Jan 2015

While the political control of Birmingham council is not up for grabs this year – Labour’s majority is unassailable – a power struggle with significant implications has already begun in one part of the city, writes Paul Dale.

The four wards that comprise the Edgbaston constituency look like being the scene of a battle royal as Labour attempts to overturn the Conservative majority on the district committee.

This is important because, under the council’s devolution arrangements, the districts administer multi-million pound budgets and are responsible for delivering a wide range of local services including libraries, highways services, housing management, parks, car parks and markets.

Whether these committees remain in their present form for much longer is a matter for debate. Sir Bob Kerslake in his recent review of the council’s governance arrangements found that devolution was not working and described the district committees as “neither efficient nor effective”.

For the time being, though, the devolution arrangements bestowed on Birmingham by Labour city council leader sir Albert Bore provide an opportunity for other political parties to grab control of local service delivery – much to the frustration and anger of many backbench Labour councillors.

Rather as in two-dimensional chess, a game within a game will be fought at the 2015 council elections.

The May poll will elect 40 of Birmingham’s 120 council members and ultimately decide which party runs Britain’s largest local authority, selects the cabinet, as well as setting the budget and spending priorities.

But the election will also determine the political make-up of the 10 district committees. At the moment Labour controls all but three of the districts – the Conservatives run Edgbaston and Sutton Coldfield, the Liberal Democrats are in charge in Yardley.

The prospect of any change in Sutton or Yardley is nil. But it is in Edgbaston where Labour feels it has unfinished business to complete. The constituency has had a Labour MP – Gisela Stuart – since 1997 and concerted attempts by various Conservative candidates to win the seat have failed.

But Labour has been unable to translate General Election victories into a majority at council level.

As things stand, the Edgbaston district committee consists of seven Conservative and five Labour members. Labour has made ground in recent years and now has two of the three Harborne councillors and all three Quinton seats.

Tory veteran James Hutchings managed to hold on in Edgbaston when these seats were last contested in 2011 with a majority over Labour of 21 votes. But Hutchings, a well-known figure in the area, is standing down this year and the new Tory candidate is a former councillor from the north of the city, Matt Bennett.

Labour clearly rates its chances of picking up Hutchings’ seat, although last year, Tory councillor Fergus Robinson held on in Edgbaston beating the Labour candidate by 174 votes.

Recognising a tough fight ahead, the Conservatives took the unusual decision to select Bennett for the 2015 election over a year ago in order to improve his profile in the ward.

Labour must win in Edgbaston and successfully defend the seat of cabinet member James McKay in Harborne to stand any chance of controlling the district committee. Labour’s hopes of picking up a third Harborne seat were dashed last year when former Tory Lord Mayor John Alden won easily.

Any realistic hopes Labour has of obtaining a clear majority in the district rest entirely on winning in Bartley Green – a ward that has returned three Conservative councillors each year since 1997.

Paradoxically, Bartley Green appears to have the make up to qualify as safe Labour territory. Its electorate is predominantly white working class and the proportion of rented council houses in the ward is twice the city average. Unemployment is slightly above the Birmingham average and the ward is among the top seven per cent in terms of deprivation on Government indices.

Labour’s failure to crack the Bartley Green nut can be put down to the appeal of one man and his family – John Lines, the pugnacious, outspoken, another former Lord Mayor of Birmingham who has been a city councillor for 33 years and likes to promote his own particular brand of working class Brumminess with references to delivering “for our people” and who as a cabinet member oversaw the city’s first council house building programme for decades.

John Lines was joined on the council in 2003 by his son Bruce, also a Bartley Green councillor, who was quickly promoted and became chair of the Edgbaston District Committee.

Bruce Lines successfully defended his Bartley Green seat at last year’s civic elections, but his victory was far from straightforward. He polled 2,637 votes, with Ukip candidate Clair Felton surprisingly in second place with 1,308 and Labour’s Mike Zamorski in third with 1,108.

At the 2011 elections, John Lines won in Bartley Green with 3,429 votes against 2,036 for Labour. Ukip did not field a candidate.

So while John Lines’s majority of 1,393 from 2011 appears to be safe enough, there is clearly room for tactical voting from Labour, and even Ukip supporters, if they can find it within themselves to switch to sides.

While no Labour official would ever countenance such a thing in public, there is a growing recognition in private that a Ukip surge this year might produce an odd result. Some Ukip supporters, possibly, might even switch their allegiance to Labour to “teach the Conservatives a lesson”.

In reality, though, with the anti-Lines vote split almost evenly between Ukip and Labour, the Conservatives should hold Bartley Green easily enough – and maintain control of the Edgbaston District Committee.

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