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Peering into the magic circle: how 77 Labour councillors get to choose Birmingham’s next leader

Peering into the magic circle: how 77 Labour councillors get to choose Birmingham’s next leader

🕔29.May 2014

A private meeting to be held this Saturday morning, May 31, will see 77 people elect the leader of Birmingham City Council, Europe’s largest local authority.

In fact, the electorate won’t even be that large as some Birmingham Labour city councillors are on holiday and, needless to say, the party doesn’t allow postal votes for such occasions.

Politicians fret about disengagement from current affairs, and goodness knows the surge of support for Ukip at the council and European elections a week ago was a good indication of the groundswell of anti-establishment feeling that exists across the country.

This is no time, therefore, for Birmingham to offer a prime example of why so many people regard the political process with deep cynicism.

The challenge to city council leader Sir Albert Bore by backbencher John Clancy is far from some minor internal party matter, which is how the Labour Party would like to spin the event away.

If Clancy wins, along with Barry Henley, who is standing for the deputy leadership, council policy will change dramatically in many areas – and none of the people who could be bothered to vote in last Thursday’s elections will have a say in the matter, except of course for the special 77.

This can’t be right, can it? The elected mayor system, which Birmingham rejected, has its faults. But at least the election process is unambiguous. Candidates stand, publish manifestos, put their case to the people, and ultimately every elector in the city has an opportunity to vote for the mayor.

When it comes down to the choice between Bore and Clancy, the people have no say whatsoever.

Other political parties are no better. When the Conservatives ran Birmingham in coalition with the Liberal Democrats the then council leader Mike Whitby faced a leadership challenge from Randal Brew. Whitby won in a secret ballot, but the results were never published by the Tories.

It is true that Saturday’s election is, in name only, simply to decide who becomes leader of the council Labour group. But since Labour has an overwhelming majority of councillors, it follows that the winner of Saturday’s vote must be elected city leader at the annual council meeting.

A Clancy win – and the word is that the result of Saturday’s vote may be very close – would usher in fundamental change in the way the council is run, with the likelihood of replacing the cabinet with a committee system of governance. That, in itself, is a big deal for Birmingham and would dilute power from an eight-person cabinet to at least 40 committee chairs and vice-chairs.

New policy directions, which voters may or may not like, will be approved. These include a huge increase in house building, free school meals for primary school children, creating a municipal bank and, most controversially of all, a ‘zero budgeting’ exercise under which all existing spending plans are torn up and the council starts again with a clean sheet of paper.

None of the previous challenges to Sir Albert Bore from Labour councillors, and there have been many, have been backed by such a comprehensive declaration of intent. Say what you will about Clancy, but he has put the work in and is offering a distinctively different approach to Sir Albert.

No wonder there is a certain amount of panic among Birmingham’s Labour establishment. Mysterious ‘senior figures’ are quoted in the media as rallying behind Sir Albert in his hour of need and cautioning that this is absolutely the wrong time to be rocking the boat.

These figures, anonymous of course, are believed to include Birmingham MPs Jack Dromey, Liam Byrne and Gisela Stuart. If that is so, good luck to them. They are as entitled to their opinion as anyone else in Birmingham, but you’d think MPs of all people would state what they think in public.

Quaintly, Labour Party rules prohibit any kind of public campaigning when it comes to the election of group officers. In theory, even Clancy’s manifesto could be regarded as a step too far down the road to populism lest any light should be let in on the magic circle populated by the 77.

Sir Albert, significantly, has made no comment about the Clancy-Henley challenge. It is as if nothing is happening. Perhaps Sir Albert’s tactics are correct. Certainly, the Great Survivor has much experience of this type of thing and has seen off each challenge to his authority since 1999.

But if something was to go wrong and Clancy somehow became leader of the Labour group of councillors, the next dramatic stage would certainly be played out in public. Sir Albert would have to resign as council leader in order to allow the council to endorse Clancy. But what would happen if Sir Albert decided not to quit? He was, after all, elected council leader for four years in 2012.

This is where it becomes interesting. In theory, the Labour group leader and the council leader can be two different people. Were Sir Albert to dig his heels in it would take a vote of no confidence at the annual council meeting to remove him.

Matters would never get to that staged, of course. Common sense would prevail. Probably.


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