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Mayday, Mayday….seconds out for Birmingham council leadership election

Mayday, Mayday….seconds out for Birmingham council leadership election

🕔18.Mar 2013

lifebeltWe are less than two months away from a significant moment for Birmingham politics – the day when 78 privileged people get to choose the leader of the city council.

Labour councillors will hold their annual meeting at the beginning of May, and the first item of business is to elect a leader for the forthcoming year.

It is hardly a secret that Quinton councillor John Clancy is on course to challenge Sir Albert Bore for the position of Labour leader, and therefore leader of the largest local authority in the UK. Clancy is understood to be close to naming his running mate, who will challenge Ian Ward for the deputy leadership.

There’s an amusing irony that the fate of Sir Albert, accused of acting in the manner of an all-powerful mayor, lies in the hands of a small number of councillors. He only has to get 40 people on his side, although anything less than 60 will surely be seen as a damning indictment.

Of course, if Birmingham had a directly elected mayor he or she would face an electorate of 750,000 potential voters, which might give Sir Albert rather more of a headache.

Cllr Clancy has been very careful to play by the rules of the game.

He’s not criticised Sir Albert by name, although he certainly has by implication, and made sure that he informed chief whip Mike Leddy before publishing an outspoken attack about the decision to move the wholesale markets out of the city centre.

One can only imagine the reaction of former shop steward Cllr Leddy upon reading Clancy’s polemic condemning the markets move as a “momentous, colossal mistake” which exposed a “fundamental disconnection in policy between the council’s leadership and where this city needs to develop”.

Was it rigorous debate, or outright disloyalty? The Labour Party is a broad church, but in common with all political movements it prefers to wash its dirty linen in private and there is a fine line between passionate argument and treachery.

Yes, Clancy included a caveat that the disconnect involved council leadership of “any recent political colour”, but there could be only one person directly in the line of his fire and that is Sir Albert Bore who as council leader ultimately approved the markets relocation.

Making certain that readers got the gist of his comments, Cllr Clancy added a few more gems: “We are going backwards to a world which has already inflicted great damage to this city.

“We have crossed a dangerous line by kicking out from the city centre what to me is the epitome of the city’s proud history.”

There then followed criticism of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP), which Cllr Clancy views as a “Tory body” doing the Government’s bidding, using public money to import a few more high-rise office blocks and ubiquitous chain stores into Birmingham city centre rather than the kind of independent shops and factories making things to sell that people really want.

Clancy concluded with a withering attack on LEP finances and the city centre enterprise zone, which have been approved by the cabinet and Sir Albert Bore: “The council can willingly and blithely still authorise itself (on behalf of the government’s LEP) to put the city council taxpayers at risk by borrowing on their behalf £125million to develop infrastructure and buildings in the heart of the city designed to bring forward massive buildings of commercial property consisting mainly of A1 office buildings.

“There is no guarantee of this scheme’s likely success – it’s a punt on commercial property and associated business and no more.”

This kind of thing will be instantly familiar to veterans of past council leadership challenges. The case against Sir Albert has been presented on a regular basis since 1999, and it always boils down to the same allegations of arrogance and cavalier disregard of the majority view of the Labour group.

And as often as the challenges come along, Sir Albert regularly survives and sends his opponents packing. Personally, I would be staggered if Cllr Clancy is elected leader and whoever his running mate turns out to be gets the deputy leader slot in May.

But you never know. It could happen. And no one should be in any doubt about the wholesale massacre that would follow, with most cabinet members and many scrutiny chairs losing their jobs to be replaced by the backers of Clancy and his deputy.

Sunday’s announcement by Lord Heseltine and Sir Albert Bore, that the Government is likely to push money the way of the Greater Birmingham Project via the LEP, could play into Clancy’s hands. He will highlight concerns about the accountability of the LEP, a point also made recently by former MP and failed mayoral campaigner Sion Simon.

The basic question that Clancy will be asking his Labour comrades is: “How far should we engage with the Tory LEP?” Sir Albert, presumably, will claim that the LEP and its focus on regional government through big business is the only game in town.

Team Clancy will play the mayoral ticket, as in the claim that Sir Albert is acting imperiously in the manner of an elected mayor rather than that of a council leader, who they believe should be consulting over policy and carrying out the wishes of Labour councillors.

Spectacular rows at Labour group meetings recently have included the markets issue, a move to charge for collection of garden refuse, the switch to wheelie bins, and the refusal to find the relatively tiny sum of £8 million to continue paying council tax benefit at 100 per cent for low income claimants.

Cllr Clancy’s backers may even imply that Albert Bore, fast approaching pensionable age and in his second spell as leader, is a little bit past it and is simply making one tactical error after another. They will suggest he panicked when faced by huge Government cash cuts and is slashing services at the drop of a hat before the true extent of the council’s financial difficulties becomes apparent.

And in a month-long campaign, Cllr Clancy and his supporters will also highlight Service Birmingham, the Capita-led ICT joint venture company which has contracts worth £1 billion with the council. It’s claimed that about £120 million of public money is syphoned off to Service Birmingham each year, compared to initial estimates of about £55 million when the arrangement was first approved eight years ago.

It will be claimed that costs could be slashed by bringing ICT services back in-house, thereby releasing more money to prop up front-line services. Indeed, investigating the cost of scrapping the council’s contracts with Capita is probably the first thing that a Clancy-led administration would do if the revolution really does materialise on May 11.

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