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Elections Eve: An Editorial

Elections Eve: An Editorial

🕔21.May 2014

Tomorrow, we go to the polls to cast our votes in local and EU elections. It will be the biggest polling event prior to the next General Election, which promises to be the closest and least predictable contest in choosing a Government for decades. So, tomorrow is a useful pointer and will go some way to shaping the approach the parties take over the next 11 and a bit months.

At Chamberlain Files HQ, we are excited by elections and by politics more generally. You can probably tell that. But away from the stories, gossip and polls of day-to-day political life and the machinations we report and opine upon here, tomorrow is much more important. I think Chris Addison, one of the stars of The Thick of It, put it best yesterday on twitter:

CAddisonElections

I’m not endorsing or criticising his view on UKIP (we’re neutral here, you know) but I think we might all sign up to the sentiment. Whatever you think of politicians or politics, voting (yes, even for councillors and Euro MPs) is important. Please, find time to do it tomorrow.

We hadn’t planned to publish so many stories about Birmingham City Council in the week before polling. We’re not in the business of backing one party or making life difficult for another. Neither are we inclined to give the council a kicking for the sake of it.

The Council will continue to be led by Labour on Friday, no matter how tomorrow plays out. We predicted here that the party could add up to nine seats to its total, but we also pointed out a number of aspects could complicate that including the UKIP factor. Will they cause an earthquake, or will Nigel’s shocker on LBC or the Croydon Carnival keep the tectonic plates from shifting?

We probably hadn’t banked on Bin-gate – especially garden waste – having such an impact on the streets and in the media. Paul Dale’s analysis was spot on and, in my view, it represents a classic case of politicians creating policies without fully thinking through the impact on the streets. Whilst I fake a sigh every time Paul tells me he’s written yet another rubbish story, the point is that if you ask voters what their council is for, bins will rank pretty high. Yes, I know the statutory requirement doesn’t necessarily run to grass cuttings and we’re well aware of the budget numbers, but that is to misunderstand the way council tax payers think about their councils and the esteem in which they hold politics today.

Our exclusive story on the view of school heads did not come as shock to me – and I’m sure it didn’t to many others. I was chair of governors at a Birmingham school which was incredibly successful, due to successive Heads and staff, but we struggled to keep the council from impeding the work of teachers and stopping the school from growing. We know the academy and free schools programme provide this and other councils with a challenge about what their role should be as local authority powers over education diminish. However, Engagement Themes points to a fundamental issue that Council consultation and engagement too often results in nothing much.

Just like the councils-schools story, the Trojan Horse saga is not confined to the current Labour administration. The underlying issues have been there for years, with all three parties culpable. But this has been a Council car crash with just about every move a textbook example of how not to handle a crisis. Yesterday’s letter from Mark Rogers and Peter Hay made my heart sink even further. The leaking of audio from their meeting with Heads wrapped up in the Trojan Horse scandal was not damaging because of what they said about the latest developments in the various investigations, but because two senior officers decided to give voice to their personal views on the Education Secretary and Chief Inspector of Schools. Their line and language was ill considered and the whole approach to the meeting was far from professional, regardless of the private nature of the gathering.

On Friday, we will find out what Oftsed thinks about the other big issue facing Rogers and Hay – that of the Council’s services for vulnerable children. Yet again, this is a critical issue that does not rest at the desks of just one set of politicians. Administration after administration; chief officer after chief officer has failed this city’s children. We can only hope that Oftsed will think things, under Hay and Lord Warner, are now going in the right direction.

So, tomorrow is important for local democracy. It won’t change the political colour of the Council, although a relatively poor performance could assist in Councillor Clancy’s challenge to Sir Albert Bore that will follow eight days after the polls close. Once the business of the ballot boxes is done, Birmingham’s political leaders and public servants return to dealing with some of the most intractable issues that have bedevilled the largest metropolitan authority in Europe for years.

Tomorrow, please make sure you vote. On Friday, regardless of who you supported, spare a thought for all the councillors and officers of Birmingham City Council and wish them well as they refocus on addressing multiple and long term issues. It is important work.

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