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Sir Albert Bore survives another leadership challenge, ‘but there has to be an exit plan eventually’

Sir Albert Bore survives another leadership challenge, ‘but there has to be an exit plan eventually’

🕔12.May 2015

Sir Albert Bore has had far narrower escapes during 16 years of challenges to his leadership of Birmingham city council’s Labour group than yesterday’s 46-30 victory over John Clancy, writes Paul Dale.

Bore once beat a challenger by a three votes and duly thanked his colleagues for expressing their confidence in him, so I do not suppose for a moment that someone with the extraordinary self-belief that Sir Albert possesses will worry for a second that more than a third of Labour councillors want him out.

Neither, probably, would the Great Survivor be overly concerned that his faithful deputy, Ian Ward, managed to see off a challenge from Cllr Barry Henley by 49-26 votes, even though a year ago Henley could only manage 11 votes when challenging Ward. I’m told an audible gasp of shock went up in the room last night when the Ward-Henley result was announced.

Clancy was nine votes away from winning and Henley was 12 votes short. The results could hardly be said to represent a ringing endorsement of the Bore-Ward regime, although a win is a win.

Sir Albert should be concerned about this, and so should Birmingham given the context in which the latest leadership election was fought.

Six months ago the Kerslake Review was published, as damning an expose of local government incompetence that you will ever read.

Kerslake identified a “failure to provide leadership and set out a positive vision” for Birmingham, a tendency to kick difficult problems into the long grass, no strategic plan that anyone could understand and a dysfunctional HR department and committee which had overseen a free for all mad dash to redundancy by some of the council’s best and brightest managers.

The Review, fully accepted by the Government and apparently by the council, also exposed Birmingham’s “we know best” culture, failure to establish effective partnerships with other stakeholders, bias towards city centre redevelopment at the expense of the suburbs and, most politically damning, a blurring of responsibilities with councillors acting like officers and officers acting like councillors.

The council is now working under a Government-imposed improvement board. There are commissioners overseeing schools and children’s social services. The council’s devolved structure, Sir Albert’s pride and glory lovingly concocted over the past 11 years, was rubbished by Kerslake and is being dismantled. The size of the council will probably be reduced to 100 councillors and there will be all-out elections soon.

It is true that Kerslake pointed to failure going back many years, under different political administrations. But one person has been ever-present during those, let us call them challenging, years – Sir Albert Bore, leader of the Labour group from 1999 and council leader from 1999 to 2004 and from 2012 to the present day.

Ian Ward has been by his side during most of that time and it is fair to say that many of the big decisions in recent years have either been taken by or approved of by Bore and Ward.

A post-Kerslake shake up of senior management at the council has seen highly paid consultants hired in an attempt to sort out failing departments. The newish chief executive Mark Rogers, who arrived just as the Trojan Horse and Kerslake fallout was taking off, is highly rated and says he is determined to make the changes that are so urgently required by implementing the Future Council Plan.

On the political front, however, there has been no change. The leadership, indeed the cabinet, has been in place since 2012, and nothing much has changed since the mid-2000s in terms of the Labour party figures holding executive positions in Birmingham.

So the really big question is this: “Should the people who got Birmingham into this mess be entrusted with getting the city out of the mess?” And, incidentally, that question could equally apply to what remains of the Liberal Democrats, who continue to be led by Paul Tilsley, deputy council leader from 2004 to 2012, the period when big mistakes were made according to Kerslake about building the new library and running up a £1.2 billion equal pay compensation bill.

No one doubts Sir Albert’s commitment to Birmingham, and his work rate for a 69-year-old is impressive, but the challenges of delivering the post-Kerslake reforms are immense and there must be an exit plan for the council leader eventually.

John Clancy is the perennial challenger, whose manifesto last year showed that he had put much thought into how he would run the council in a more inclusive way. However, he who brandishes the dagger rarely ends up wearing the crown.

Clancy has been eating away into Sir Albert’s majority since 2011 when the council leader managed 43 votes to nine for Clancy. That was followed by a 51-23 victory for Sir Albert in 2013, 47-27 last year and 46-30 this year.

Clancy’s biggest problem, indeed the problem for any aspiring leader, is to find a way of recruiting supporters from the ‘payroll vote’ – and with getting on for half of the Labour group relying on the patronage of the leadership for well-paid special responsibility allowances, that is always going to be a difficult challenge.

Kerslake questioned the number of jobs attracting SRAs, in particular district committee chairs and chairs of some of the superfluous scrutiny committees. I am hearing that Sir Albert is considering a new set of SRAs for deputy committee chairs, presumably in an effort to maintain the clout of the payroll vote. It remains to be seen whether this gets past the improvement board.

Next Saturday’s Labour group meeting to elect scrutiny chairs and confirm the appointment of cabinet members will be even more interesting than usual. There are now only five scrutiny committees, so some of Sir Albert’s supporters may be disappointed on the jobs front.

Meanwhile, Cllr Muhammed Afzal, former chair of the employment committee who was sharply criticised by Kerslake, has applied for a cabinet position, and if he doesn’t get that he wants to be a scrutiny committee chair. Afzal has delivered Asian councillor votes for Sir Albert for years. Will he get a job? Hell, yes.

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