Secret Election Diary: Sir Albert’s long goodbye and a hustings U-turn
It’s been 16 years since Birmingham city council Labour group changed its leader.
And how different things were in 1999 when Albert Bore successfully deposed Theresa Stewart to become city council leader.
The internet was in its infancy. Social media didn’t exist. No Twitter, no Facebook. Communications were far from instantaneous. The possibility of letting the people decide who should run Birmingham through a directly elected mayor was being promoted by Tony Blair, but few thought anything much would come of it and they were right.
Back in the dying days of the 20th century, Labour in Birmingham could just about get away with the mantra that “this is an internal party matter” when electing a new group leader, who would then automatically become council leader – although even then some of us were questioning whether this was the best way to choose the leader of a city of a million people.
Sir Albert Bore’s decision last month to announce his intention to resign meant that Labour had to organise its first election in the modern era at which it is clear in advance the group and council leadership will definitely change. To make matters more difficult, this contest comes as the council finds itself in the eye of the Kerslake storm and possibly on the verge of Government takeover.
And, sadly, the regional party and the city council Labour group itself has proved it could not organise the proverbial booze up in a brewery.
The first mistake, as alluded to in this column, was the failure to force Sir Albert to quit immediately. There is, even now, no vacancy for the council leadership because Sir Albert will remain in post until December 1, a week after the Labour group meets to elect a new leader on November 23.
It has been said that the absolutely unnecessary and inadvisably long timescale for the group election was decided in order to give Sir Albert a few weeks for a ‘long goodbye’ tour of Birmingham. It remains to be seen what happens during the week November 23 to December 1, when the council will effectively have two leaders – a leader in name only, Sir Albert, and a leader-elect who will be the new Labour group leader.
And then there is the matter of public engagement.
Having painted itself into a corner on the issue of hustings, Labour is now desperately trying to find a way of reversing a decision to bar leadership candidates from taking part in public meetings without appearing to have performed a huge U-turn.
There is confusion over whether or not the hustings ban was enforced by West Midlands regional Labour office officials, but one thing is certain: a recommendation from the Birmingham Labour executive committee that leadership candidates should not participate in public debates was approved by the Labour group – it is therefore a binding group decision which can in theory only be overturned by a further meeting of the group.
As one of the candidates told me, it would be “political suicide” to take part in hustings when the group has made its opposition clear.
It seems highly probable that Labour will concede one hustings event. Pressure is being applied on the local party after news of the debacle in Birmingham reached the National Executive Committee and the office of Jeremy Corbyn.
Jack Dromey, Labour’s shadow Home Office minister and Erdington MP, has been leading discussions with the local party. All that remains now is for the rules of engagement to be decided, and for someone in authority to tell Birmingham Labour councillors what they are going to have to do.
Meanwhile, as for the leadership contest itself, all eyes now are on which of the five candidates might pull out and bequeath their votes to a fellow contender. All of the usual health warnings apply – this is an electorate of just 78 people, taking part in a secret ballot – but as things stand it would appear John Clancy has been promised sufficient votes to win on the first ballot.
My estimation is only two of the remaining four candidates can challenge Clancy – Ian Ward and Penny Holbrook. I said a few weeks ago there was more chance of Shergar trotting along Colmore Row than Mike Leddy becoming council leader, and I see no reason to think otherwise. Similarly, Barry Henley has two chances, slim and none, and Slim just left town.
If Leddy and Henley were to withdraw, unlikely I know, and endorse either Clancy or Ward, doubly unlikely, the contest would become a lot more interesting.
Finally, the most bizarre story even in Birmingham where madness is the norm, is the suggestion that the Government is considering sending in the city’s MPs to run the council thus avoiding the politically corrosive issue of unelected commissioners being put in charge.
The likes of Hodge Hill Labour MP Liam Byrne and Sutton Coldfield Tory MP Andrew Mitchell have ministerial experience and could soon lick the failing council into shape, it is claimed.
Yes, well, they were both so successful as ministers, weren’t they?
Our leadership odds:
John Clancy 1/8
Penny Holbrook 20/1
Ian Ward 30/1
Mike Leddy 100/1
Barry Henley 151/1
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