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Resurgent Labour left will change the face of Birmingham politics

Resurgent Labour left will change the face of Birmingham politics

🕔13.Aug 2015

The Labour leadership and deputy leadership contest could have significant implications for Birmingham in the run up to the 2018 all-out city council elections and for the West Midlands combined authority, explains Paul Dale.

The direction of the Labour party will change whoever becomes the new leader.

If, as seems likely, Jeremy Corbyn emerges victorious, we can expect a radical policy shift leftwards on a scale unprecedented since the 1980s, and probably very quickly a movement at war with itself and the departure of moderates to other billets.

Supporters of Mr Corbyn have reportedly organised a victory party in Trafalgar Square on September 12, the day the contest result will be declared. Even if he doesn’t get quite enough votes to cross the winning line it seems certain that a large proportion of those participating in the leadership contest will have backed him. If it turns out that 30 or perhaps upwards of 40 per cent of the party wanted Labour to be led by Corbyn then these people cannot be ignored and there will have to be a tilt to the left if a bloody civil war is to be avoided.

Understandably all eyes are on the Corbyn bandwagon. What has been largely overlooked is the second election for a deputy Labour leader, a contest that West Bromwich MP Tom Watson is red hot favourite to win by a large margin.

Quite how Mr Corbyn and Mr Watson will get on is anybody’s guess, but it doesn’t look very good on paper. Corbyn is an old-style, hard left supporter of public ownership, wealth and property taxes, as well as nuclear disarmament and reportedly wants to be friendlier to Russia and Mr Putin.

Watson represents Labour’s traditionally moderate working class trade union wing and is renowned as an expert campaigner – his efforts to help Gordon Brown replace Tony Blair and his leading role in exposing the media telephone hacking scandal spring to mind.

As a campaigner Watson must know it will prove impossible to sell Corbynomics to the electorate and that Labour is certain to lose the 2020 General Election as a result. He may conclude very quickly that his best bet is to concentrate on shoring up the Labour First part of the party which is likely to come under sustained attack from the left.

What then does all of this mean at grass roots level? What impact would a Corbyn-Watson team have on Birmingham where Britain’s biggest council is firmly in the hands of the Labour party, as well as under the direction of a Tory Government-appointed improvement panel?

The biggest known unknown is the extent to which the new members that have joined the party in order to vote in the leadership election will wish to play an active role in ward and constituency parties. There have been almost 200,000 new joiners across the country since the General Election and it is assumed, although this is entirely unproven, that most of the newcomers signed up to support Mr Corbyn and his hard-left agenda.

If their man wins they will be enthused, certainly for a few months. Ward and constituency parties, where the number of attendees at meetings can often be under 50, may find themselves overwhelmed by new, youngish members with the light of battle in their eyes and a determination to replace moderate and centre-right Labour city councillors with left-wingers. A repeat, if you like, of the surge leftwards from 1980 to 1986.

Mr Watson, meanwhile, has his backers in Birmingham who may expect to be given preferment. People like Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood, West Midlands MEP Sion Simon, perennial council leadership contender John Clancy, ambitious scrutiny committee chair Waseem Zaffar and former councillor turned Westside BID manager Mike Olley are firmly in the Watson camp.

Further afield, Darren Cooper, the leader of Sandwell Council and spokesman for the emerging West Midlands combined authority, is a Watson man.

The change in national Labour leadership could hardly have come at a more difficult time for Birmingham city council. The authority is in turmoil, battered by fallout from the Kerslake Review, attempting to force through a radical culture change programme addressing years of poor leadership, and to top it all will move to all-out elections from 2018 where the result is far from predictable.

The next three years are likely to be marked by a bitter behind the scenes selection dogfight as Labour’s left, right and centre sections join battle to get their people on to the city council.

The council cabinet as it stands, under moderate pro-European Union, pro-elected mayor leader Sir Albert Bore can hardly be said to particularly left wing, with the exception perhaps of veteran Stewart Stacey, a former leadership contender, who might perhaps just be thinking his time could come again. Sir Albert wants to carry on and on, but common sense suggests that as he enters his 70s time is not on his side.

There are persistent rumours that another poor report from the Kerslake improvement panel on Birmingham’s slow progress will trigger a no-confidence vote in Sir Albert at a meeting of the Labour group at the end of September. Should Mr Watson become deputy leader of the Labour party, and wishes to take an interest in Birmingham’s affairs, Sir Albert’s retirement could be speeded up.

The biggest political prizes in Birmingham and the West Midlands are only just beginning to be understood. The combined authority will have a metro mayor. There’s a certain level of pretence at the moment about putting options to George Osborne, but Chamberlain Files understands a decision has all but been taken by the seven metropolitan councils to accept a mayor has to be part of the package.

There will also have to be a new police commissioner next year. Incumbent David Jamieson may fancy standing for a second term, but will he get the Labour nomination? In any case, when an elected metro mayor takes office he or she will be able to appoint a police commissioner as well as a deputy mayor. There will, then, be jobs aplenty when the combined authority gets underway.

The natural progression if wards begin to select candidates from the hard left to stand for Birmingham city council is that fairly quickly the political complexion of everything from the cabinet through to scrutiny committees, regulatory committees and district committees will begin to change, assuming of course that the new lefties can convince the electorate to vote for them.

The Birmingham council 2018-2022 may turn out to be a very different body to the moderate institution we have known for so many years.

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