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EDITORIAL: The day that democracy died in Birmingham

EDITORIAL: The day that democracy died in Birmingham

🕔04.Nov 2015

EDITORIAL: Today, nominations open for the next leader of Birmingham’s Labour group – by default the next leader of Birmingham City Council. Kevin Johnson, editor, and Paul Dale, chief blogger, suggest that today might be the day democracy dies in Birmingham.

The Labour Party in Birmingham has turned its back on the 21st century with a predictable and recklessly self-centred decision to ban candidates contesting the city council leadership election from debating in public.

It’s just an internal Labour group matter, you see.

Seventy-eight councillors will gather in private later this month and elect someone to replace Sir Albert Bore as leader, and that person will then be confirmed as council leader on December 1.

Nothing to see here. Move along. We’ll do as we’ve always done and let you know when we’ve decided.

Except that this is not and must not be a matter for the party machine to fix behind closed doors because it is no exaggeration to say that the very future of Birmingham city council as a democratically functioning body of government is at stake.

The Kerslake Review exposed an inward-looking organisation beset by years of poor leadership, a ‘we know best’ attitude and a tendency to kick difficult decisions into the long grass – repeat: poor leadership, insularity and an inability to take tough decisions.

If Labour had thought long and hard for months of ways to stick two fingers up to Lord Kerslake and the Government, it could not have come up with anything more symptomatic of an organisation trapped in its own bubble than by forbidding councillors from speaking at public meetings.

The day that Labour slammed the lid shut on debate was the day that democracy died in Birmingham.

The decision is even more extraordinary at a time when large city councils across the country are becoming more publicly accountable by choosing to have a directly elected metro mayor in order to benefit from the Government’s devolution programme. Birmingham, meanwhile, is content to ‘elect’ its next leader away from the prying eyes of the public and will no doubt send white smoke up the Council House chimney when a leader eventually emerges (which does a disservice to the democratic credentials of the Catholic Church).

The possibility that the Government will send in commissioners to run Birmingham city council is very real. Sir Albert’s resignation does not, on its own, mean the threat has gone away. Much will depend on the view the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel takes of the new council leader and the way ‘he’ (possibly ‘she’ with Cllr Holbrook’s hat now in the ring) is elected and performs during the first few weeks in office.

Each of the candidates for the council leadership should, were they not shackled by a party gagging order, be reaching out to the panel, to business organisations, to stakeholders and to the general public to say ‘this is who I am and this is what I can offer to Birmingham’.

And what is the panel to make of Labour’s decision to disengage from any public debate? The obvious conclusion, surely, is that the political party in control of Birmingham has learnt absolutely nothing from Kerslake and either doesn’t understand or is so inflated with its own self-importance that it is in denial about what the future may hold.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, it is perhaps possible to see why Labour is so keen on closing down public debate since the performance so far of candidates for the council leadership has served merely to highlight the poor quality of the field.

Contenders – and the party – may be looking to the strategy of David Cameron who came under intense pressure to face Ed Miliband in a one-to-one TV debate in the last General Election. His team didn’t want to take risks and were against allowing the possibility of the Labour leader looking more prime ministerial than the PM when alone in a TV studio with him.

The differences to this contest are marked. Voters missed out on a one-to-one in May, but they were treated to other TV debates and, of course, could cast an actual vote. Messrs Cameron and Miliband were not, as far as we can remember, living under a Kerslake-like cloud with commissioners standing by to take over No 10.

For anyone thinking they may stand a chance of winning, such as John Clancy given our poll which has him at 62%, you might think that public debate would provide an opportunity to highlight their leadership credentials. For so long the contender, even irritant, Clancy now stands on the precipice of leading a multi-billion pound public body. His fellow councillors and the public at large will be wondering how he would fare in the spotlight, under scrutiny, and whether he has real leadership potential rather than just ideas.

Politics is littered with examples of campaigns which have delivered office, only for it to be discovered that the leader didn’t know what to do with power or how to organise their machine once they got behind the big desk. With commissioners sitting in a transit van around from Chamberlain Square, waiting for 1st December before engaging the city beyond your group and the council is akin to signing your own death warrant before you reach court.

The Labour party in Birmingham and plenty of Labour councillors must have looked on in spellbound horror at Chamberlain Files’ daily reports on the comments of the four (until last night) candidates, which pretty much amount to the longest car crash in local political history.

We understand Cabinet members have been musing on the integrity of recent Chamberlain Files coverage, suggesting that some candidates have been writing the stories for us. It’s been quite untoward of us, meanwhile, to actually report what people say in interviews with Chamberlain Files.

Here’s a message to Labour politicians and supporters. When you attack the messenger, you’re already in deep trouble. If anyone would like to take issue with our ability to transcribe words spoken to us, please do let us know. If any Cabinet members would like to write, in the first person, for the Files, you are always very welcome. But when we write in our names, rest assured we’re the ones at the keyboard.

But, if you think our ability to report, to provide analysis and insight (and yes, share gossip) is anything other than professional, fair, balanced and accurate, we’re up for a discussion in public. Sorry, that’s probably uncomfortable for you. But we are pretty experienced at what we do and we’re not shy of scrutiny and debate.

Mike Leddy has bombarded colleagues with a series of policy-pledge emails that read rather like a 1970’s liberal studies test paper based on councils doing more and more when, actually, the greatest challenge for the new leader will be to find ways of safeguarding core services with less and less money available. It appears, as a matter of interest, the publication by Chamberlain Files of segments from Leddy’s emails proved to be the breaking point for the West Midlands Labour Party, with officials sensing that web-streamed hustings might not necessarily paint Birmingham politicians in a good light.

Ian Ward, the deputy leader, began the campaign by declaring that he would be organising hustings and challenging his opponents take part. Cllr Ward, who astonishingly presented himself as the change, but not too much change’ candidate, reportedly did not seek to challenge the hustings ban, a recommendation from the Labour group executive, of which he is a member.

Barry Henley’s leadership bid has been accompanied by an amusing (for us, not for Labour) account of how he kept telling Sir Albert Bore where he was going wrong, but was frankly ignored. Henley’s blunt honesty about the low level of political leadership can hardly be challenged, but would again make for an embarrassingly lively debate.

Only John Clancy of the four longest standing contenders has managed to emerge, thus far, without dropping a brick, although he has of course had about eight years to plan his campaign and fine tune policies. Even Clancy, it should be pointed out, was never particularly keen on hustings, preferring instead to concentrate on the 78-strong councillor electorate.

The brutal fact is that time is running out for Birmingham. The new council leader cannot afford to wait until December 1 to introduce himself to the public and, through the improvement panel, to Communities Secretary Greg Clark. The panel’s next letter will be published tomorrow. Banning leadership candidates from debating in public is an appallingly backward-looking step and may even prove fatal to any hope the council has of retaining self-governance.

We can only hope that Birmingham’s Labour MPs summon the courage and wisdom to go over the heads of the local Labour party and appeal directly to Jeremy Corbyn to restore democracy to this great city.

In the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary victory – an influx of ‘registered’ members and excited talk of ‘new politics’ – it is somewhat ironic that his comrades in Birmingham have decided that debates and meeting voters people is not for them.

Chamberlain Files publisher RJF Public Affairs was in the process of preparing to help candidates to engage in public debate, working closely with our colleagues at Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail and with anticipated interest from BBC programmes. @NewsinBrum had already announced its event and is oversubscribed. Barry Henley had committed to joining both. He’s apparently agreed to withdraw from the two events, although Chamberlain Files awaits the email.

There is still time for the candidates, the group and regional office to come to their senses. Nominations close on 9th November with the vote on the 23rd. We and our media colleagues along with several supporting organisations are ready to create the platform to engage the city in a healthy debate about the direction of the city and its council.

Birmingham’s MPs have often been criticised for their lack of engagement in city politics, working with the Council and promoting Birmingham at Westminster. That has improved in recent years, but this is the moment they need to step up to the plate and ensure the party machine, local Labour group and the candidates realise the consequences of hiding behind closed doors. Or, it could be too late for Birmingham.

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