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Labour’s back-room mayoral fixers a ‘cynical kick in the teeth’ for democracy in Birmingham

Labour’s back-room mayoral fixers a ‘cynical kick in the teeth’ for democracy in Birmingham

🕔11.Apr 2012

It is certainly unpalatable. Unthinkable even. But could each of the two main political parties in Britain really enter the contest to select a candidate for mayor of Birmingham with a shortlist of one?

Although it would be a cynical kick in the teeth for democracy and localism there is a growing possibility that, for very different reasons, both Labour and the Conservatives might end up presenting their members with no choice at all over who they put forward for the powerful mayoral role.

On the Conservative side, there is only city council leader Mike Whitby. Said to rule the Birmingham Tory party with a rod of iron, Coun Whitby will declare his candidacy on May 4 if a referendum goes in favour of a mayor for Birmingham. Conservative rivals to Whitby, if there are any, have not yet emerged from their hiding places and probably never will.

It is on the Labour side, however, where the great and sometimes dirty game of politics is being played out with a vengeance and threatens to come to a bloody climax over the next few weeks. Put bluntly, the back-room armies of influence behind candidates Sion Sion, Liam Byrne and Gisela Stuart are using every trick in the book to make sure that nothing is left to chance when it comes to the mayoral selection process.

At the centre of this, as he has been for almost two years, is Sion Simon who quit as Labour MP for Erdington at the 2010 General Election to begin a campaign to become mayor of Birmingham. The decision, entirely unexpected at the time, led immediately to whispers about Mr Simon somehow being guaranteed the mayoral slot by party leaders – a claim given greater air time by the fact that his vacant seat was allocated to trade union leader Jack Dromey, the husband of deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman.

Mr Simon has always denied knowledge of anything untoward and says he has been promised nothing. But there were then and are now plenty of Labour members who suspect that a decision to give up being a Government Minister and MP in favour of gambling on a highly uncertain selection race must have been based on rather more than a fleeting chance that he might come out on top.

Months of doorstep campaigning, meeting and greeting Birmingham’s 3,800 Labour members, appears to have put Mr Simon in a powerful position. He has also spent a considerable amount of time attempting to appeal to Labour’s black and minority ethnic membership through the supportive efforts of Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood.

He was the first of Labour’s three Birmingham candidates to issue a manifesto and even the late declaration by Hodge Hill MP and Shadow Cabinet member Liam Byrne did not throw him off course. Friends of Mr Simon, for that is the medium through which he tends to communicate, said he was “intensely relaxed” over Mr Byrne’s decision to put himself forward for mayoral selection, adding cheekily that Mr Simon felt it wouldn’t be much of a contest without a heavyweight opponent to beat.

Sadly, this is an issue that encapsulates Labour’s obsession with old fashioned “fixers”. That is, the “friends”of candidates who can bring influence to bear in the party at national level. And Mr Simon can boast one of the biggest friends of all in the shape of Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich East, deputy party chairman, Shadow Cabinet member and Labour folk hero for the part he played in exposing the media phone bugging scandal.

If Mr Simon has the Brownite and trade union wing of the Labour Party behind him, possibly including Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, Mr Byrne is clearly the New Labour candidate and has support from Lord Mandelson among others, even it is whispered from Ed Miliband himself although this has never been confirmed.

However, Mr Watson’s influence on Labour’s National Executive Committee could yet prove fatal to the chances of Mr Byrne and Mrs Stuart, the MP for Edgbaston.

Having decided somewhat controversially that any Labour MP chosen to run for mayor must resign their seat immediately, the NEC is now said to be running scared at the prospect of a summer of difficult by-elections in major cities like Birmingham. Labour’s thrashing by Respect’s George Gallloway in the Bradford West by-election, as well as the financial cost of organising elections, has focused minds and it is possible that the NEC may yet try to ban MPs from standing for selection as mayoral or police commissioner candidates.

Of course, if the NEC was to make such a ruling, it would be most unfortunate for Mr Byrne and Mrs Stuart, who would be barred from contesting the Labour nomination for mayor of Birmingham.

On the other hand, such a decision would play magnificently into Mr Simon’s hands, since he had the foresight to resign his parliamentary seat in 2010 and would end up being handed the Labour ticket on a plate.

And in another strange twist of fortune, the only other contender who might have given Mr Simon a run for his money, city council Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore, has already dropped out of the mayoral race to act as Liam Byrne’s running mate. Sir Albert, the master tactician who told friends he would only put himself forward if he could be certain that the selection process was above board, may have reason to think twice about the assurances he was apparently given.

As for Mrs Stuart, she has been unable to contain her anger railing against an “old fashioned backward looking“ Labour Party that was trying to control the entire selection process. Mrs Stuart told a national newspaper: “The whole point of mayors was to devolve power and increase democratic participation. The party machinery has to show some faith in the good judgment of voters and you cannot do that by drawing up rules that narrow down the contest.”

It is difficult to see how these shenanigans will do anything other than reinforce growing public disenchantment with the party political process. Labour, it seems, simply lacks the structures or the faith to give members locally the right to choose the best mayoral candidate as they see it.

With factionalism rife in Labour’s ranks, and a distinct lack of candidates from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat side of the fence, the conditions are surely better than they have ever been for a charismatic Independent or minor party candidate to snatch the Birmingham mayoral crown. I’ve no idea of the odds that could be obtained on Salma Yaqoob and the Respect Party, but a flutter on the outsiders could be worth a punt in this case.

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