There’s good and bad news for Sir Albert Bore as he prepares for what most people assume will be a triumphant return to the leadership of Birmingham City Council later this month.
On the plus side, the last Labour Party conference approved a constitutional rule change that will for the first time allow Sir Albert to appoint his own cabinet rather than having to rely on councillors electing the members.
This reform, however, has been over-shadowed by the collapse of Sir Albert’s much-vaunted ‘modernisation’ plan which would have seen a few scrutiny committee chairmanships magnanimously handed to Tory and Lib Dem councillors. More about this later.
Those with longish memories will recall that Sir Albert’s first period in charge of the council from 1999 to 2004 consisted of exhaustive and disruptive plotting over who should (or should not) be in the cabinet. The nine places up for grabs were voted for each year by a deeply divided Labour group which spent most of its time attempting to oust Sir Albert.
As a result some of the most important cabinet positions, housing and transportation for instance, were taken by hard-left councillors who would never have been appointed by Sir Albert and with whom he found it impossible to work.
The rule change came as something of a shock to some of the comrades, who it seems are not entirely happy about handing Sir Albert powers to select his own team.
One disgruntled Labour councillor told me: “Most people knew nothing about this and you could say it has provoked some grumbling. The election of cabinet members has been a jealously guarded check by backbenchers on the group leadership.”
This means that the annual circus otherwise known as the selection of Labour officials will be somewhat curtailed this year. It also means that Sir Albert will be able to appoint a cabinet without seeking direct approval from anyone, in just the same way that Tory council leader Mike Whitby has done since 2004.
The change inevitably increases the level of patronage in the hands of the council leader, although the additional powers will be transferred to an elected mayor in November should Birmingham vote for change.
In the meantime, Sir Albert’s ability to reward his supporters with well-paid posts could be extended even further should he be permitted by the Labour Party nationally to appoint chairmen of the planning, licensing and public protection committees.
One area though where the Labour group is determined to stand up for itself involves the selection of 10 scrutiny committee chairmen and vice-chairmen. For more than a year now, Sir Albert and deputy Labour group leader Ian Ward have promising to introduce “grown up politics” by putting a few of the better behaved Tory and Lib Dem councillors in charge of scrutiny committees.
To say that the idea did not go down very well with most Labour councillors is something of an under-statement. They hated the idea of giving power to political opponents, not to mention handing to “the enemy” lucrative special responsibility allowances paid to scrutiny chairs.
The matter came to a head at the last Labour group meeting where, despite pleas from Sir Albert and Coun Ward to portray Birmingham as a modern city where scrutiny does not depend on political bias, there was an overwhelming majority in favour of denying any positions to opposition members.
An insider said: “There were a few people who said ‘we should be doing new politics’, but most people made the point that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition had never given Labour a scrutiny chairmanship so why should we give anything to them?”
And on the subject of long memories, who handed scrutiny committee chairmanships to opposition Tory members in 2003 in a deal concocted to keep a minority Labour group in power? Ah, that would be Sir Albert Bore.
- Birmingham’s appointment with history (thechamberlainfiles.com)