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Labour’s early fireworks party

Labour’s early fireworks party

🕔24.Sep 2012

It’s not November yet, but we can expect plenty of fireworks when Birmingham City Council’s controlling Labour group finally gets around to meeting after a three month summer break.

The comrades, all 77 of them, last gathered to discuss policy at the beginning of July and there has been no opportunity since then for backbenchers collectively to have their say on the way things are going.

I hear that Sir Albert Bore, the council leader, has called an extraordinary group meeting for the first Monday in October in response to demands for a debate on controversial Government welfare reforms.

And in typical Albert fashion, he’s arranged the meeting slap bang in the middle of the Labour conference. The annual shindig in Manchester is certain to be attended by a large number of Birmingham councillors, who consequently won’t be at the group meeting.

You might almost think the clash of dates is deliberate. Funnily enough, Sir Albert is expected to be in Manchester so won’t have to sit and listen to criticism of the way he’s handling council tax benefit reform.

Labour’s official line is that Birmingham stands to lose £11 million in Government grant under the localisation of council tax benefit reforms and therefore has no option but to pass this on by ending rebates for tens of thousands of low income families. Wicked Government: but what can you do?

The maximum rebate anyone apart from pensioners and those with children under six will be able to claim from next April is likely to be 76 per cent of their council tax bill – leaving more than 50,000 claimants at least £250 a year worse off.

For the first time since the dreaded poll tax in 1992, some of the poorest families in Birmingham will have to make a direct financial contribution towards the delivery of council services.

Not every Labour councillor accepts Sir Albert’s argument that nothing can be done about this.

One of the usual suspects tells me it “beggars belief” that the Labour group could not find the £11 million required to maintain full council tax rebates from other sources. After all, the city runs a revenue budget of getting on for £2 billion a year.

There are concerns that other Labour controlled councils in the West Midlands, perhaps Sandwell and Walsall, may be planning to absorb the Government cut and continue to pay hundred per cent rebates. If that was to happen, Birmingham would be seen as slavishly following the Tory-Lib Dem Government agenda by inflicting unnecessary further hardship on the poor.

The special meeting to discuss welfare reform will be followed a week later by Labour’s traditional pre-council group meeting, which is also likely to be a lively affair.

My contact firmly embedded on the backbenches says: “People found the decision to hold the welfare reform meeting at the same time as the Labour conference to be insulting, frankly.

“But that’s indicative of smouldering discontent at what’s seen as the failure of Sir Albert and the leadership to consult with the group in any meaningful way.”

Items of concern include arbitrary policy announcements on wheelie bins and the possible dismantling of housing liaison boards. There is also disquiet at the council’s wall of silence over the marking down of GCSE English papers. Birmingham, the country’s largest local education authority, significantly did not join with 39 other councils in taking legal action against Ofqual.

After four months in charge of the council, it’s still early days for Labour.  But there are clear dangers of discontent if those outside of the leadership – and that’s more than half of the 77 councillors – feel left out on a limb and not properly consulted on policy.

THE surprising decision to paint in the head of the late Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Mike Nangle, on the restored John F Kennedy memorial at Digbeth is enlivening what remains of the silly season.

Former cabinet leisure and culture member Martin Mullaney has taken some exception to this.

And not, he says, for party political reasons.

Mr Mullaney is a Liberal Democrat and Mike Nangle was a prominent Irish Labour councillor.

But they often both enjoyed a pint of Guinness together at the Prince of Wales pub in Moseley.

No, it’s a point of principle. Mullaney resisted attempts to modernise the mural when he was the cabinet member, insisting it should remain true to 1968, when it was first unveiled at St Chad’s. There were, seemingly, demands to include Bob Geldof and Mother Theresa in the crowd gathered around Kennedy.

Mullaney described the decision to include Nangle, apparently approved by Labour after regaining control of the council in May, as “blatantly undemocratic”.

Alas, he is mistaken if he thought he might get some support from the artist responsible for restoring the mural. Oliver Budd told BBC WM: “This is an appropriate tribute to a respected public servant. I am not saying it is an inappropriate decision. I think it is a very correct decision.”

A council spokesman played it with a straight bat: “Mike Nangle was the first Irish-born Lord Mayor of Birmingham and of historical significance which is why he has been included.”

A Labour councillor was rather more to the point: “The trouble is Mullaney thinks he is still in charge. Well, he’s not.”

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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