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Labour’s win against the odds leaves disappointed Tories seeking answers

Labour’s win against the odds leaves disappointed Tories seeking answers

🕔06.May 2016

The chances of Labour emerging from yesterday’s Birmingham city council elections unscathed were not quite as remote as the 5,000-1 odds on Leicester City winning the Premier League.

But council leader John Clancy, who is known to like an occasional flutter on the horses, probably wouldn’t have put his mortgage on the party gaining two seats, one each from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, to put Labour at its strongest position in Birmingham since the 1990s.

Yet, that is exactly what happened. Even though Labour was defending 20 seats it won in 2012 when the party was riding high in the opinion polls, here in Birmingham the various divisive national issues swirling around Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn appeared not to have affected voters one jot.

As often happens, Birmingham bucked the election trend and it is difficult to argue with Cllr Clancy’s announcement that “Birmingham is a Labour city”.

Labour finds itself in the happy position of having 80 out of 120 councillors, with the Conservatives on 29, the Liberal Democrats 10, and one Independent. The last time Labour had 80 councillors in Birmingham was in 1998 at the height of Tony Blair’s popularity.

For Birmingham Conservatives, however brave the face party officials may adopt in public, May 5 was a very poor result indeed. The Tories managed to lose to Labour in Weoley and failed to win any of their target seats in a performance which continues a downward spiral since 2006.

The Tories had been quietly confident of taking back Sutton Vesey from Labour’s Rob Pocock, who surprisingly won the seat in 2012. But the result was something of a humiliation for the Conservatives, when Pocock was returned with a massive 1,799-vote majority.

It wasn’t to be a happy night either for veteran Tory candidates Les Lawrence and Nigel Dawkins. The pair, big beasts from the last time the Conservatives ran Birmingham, were selected for what the Tories thought were the highly the winnable seats of Northfield and Bournville. Labour defended both seats fairly easily.

The Conservatives fought a hard campaign in Hall Green, their number four target seat, but Labour’s Barry Bowles was returned with an increased majority of 1,004 votes. It was a similar story in Longbridge, a ward the Conservatives would expect to win in good times. Labour’s Carole Griffiths took the seat with a 437-vote majority.

The results were a vindication for Cllr Clancy’s leadership, and his very upfront campaigning style. This year’s Birmingham elections were notable for the new council leader’s use of social media and his personal campaigning in all of the Labour target seats.

He toured 10 wards on polling day itself alongside Lozells & East Handsworth councillor Waseem Zaffar, and was ever present in the media centre as the results were declared, greeting his successful candidates with hugs and plenty of back slapping.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Birmingham elections were typically a political dogfight between Labour and the Conservatives with control of the council switching between the two parties. But it has been pretty much downhill for the Tories since then, apart from a brief period of success as lead partners in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats from 2004 to 2012.

Yesterday, the Conservative share of the vote in Birmingham remained at the 30 per cent mark. Labour’s rose to 52 per cent. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile are becalmed at 10 per cent.

For the Liberal Democrats, it is backs to the wall and down to core support. The party held on in Perry Barr where Lord Mayor Ray Hassall easily saw off a surprise Labour decision to target the ward. But Liberal Democrat councillor Jerry Evans went down in Springfield, losing to Labour by 53 votes after three recounts.

Conservative group leader Robert Alden did his best to look on the positive side, pointing out that his party came a close second to Labour in several seats. But second place, as Cllr Alden must know, means nothing.

He did have some good news to reflect on with Tory Gary Sambrook successfully defending Kingstanding, a seat he won from Labour in 2014. Sambrook came home with a majority of 207 votes.

There will doubtless be an inquest into why the Conservatives did not do better, and questions may be asked about the wisdom of the party’s campaign which focused relentlessly on dustbins, street cleaning and fly-tipping. These are issues that people are concerned about, but are they issues that win elections?

Cllr Alden suggested the Birmingham results overall would give the Conservatives a good platform to fight the 2018 elections, when all 100 seats in a new, smaller, council will be contested. Perhaps he is right, for it is impossible today to predict the prevailing national political trend in two years’ time.

On the other hand, judging by the Tories’ recent performances, the party has a huge mountain to climb if it is ever to run Birmingham again. And the Conservatives are hardly going to be able to rely on the Liberal Democrats to help them out anytime soon.

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