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Summer Report: Tory Group Leader Bobby Alden

Summer Report: Tory Group Leader Bobby Alden

🕔18.Aug 2014

This week in our end-of-term updates, chief blogger Paul Dale takes a closer look at Birmingham City Council and some of the key players beyond Bore. We start with the man installed as leader of the Conservative Group earlier this year. 

No one can deny it’s been a good year for Robert Alden. In fact, things have been looking up for Alden-the-younger since about 2010 when he emerged as the leader of a pack of young liberal, leftish, Birmingham Tories who were determined to shake up their party’s rather staid image.

This year, Alden, who likes to be known as ‘Bobby’, became leader of the city council Conservative group at the age of 31, which in Birmingham Tory circles is a ridiculously young age. He had been deputy leader since 2011.

But Alden has always been precocious. He was first elected to the council in 2006, aged 23, making him the youngest Birmingham councillor in modern times.

What made his victory all the more improbable was the fact that it came in Erdington, a ward that Labour had more or less taken for granted for many years. The possibility of a Tory victory in a white working class area marked out by high unemployment and sprawling council estates simply had not occurred to Birmingham’s Labour leadership, until it was too late to stop the Tory assault.

Eight years later, all three Erdington councillors are Tories. In neighbouring Kingstanding, once thought of by Labour as absolutely impregnable, two of the three councillors are Tories. This is an almost unbelievable and utterly embarrassing turn of events for Labour.

Alden made his name as a campaigner of some rare ability. By managing to win outside of the Tory heartlands of Sutton Coldfield and Edgbaston, he quickly convinced many of his colleagues that he has the Midas touch. In truth though, his success is down to hard work, plenty of shoe leather, door knocking and knowing which grass roots issues to raise.

Succession to the leadership proved surprisingly easy in the end. Bobby Alden was the sole candidate following Mike Whitby’s elevation to the House of Lords. But Alden’s victory did not always appear quite so likely. He had to work hard to win over older Tory councillors who were suspicious of his longish hair, liking for open-neck colourful shirts, combat trousers and trainers, not to mention his enthusiasm for green politics.

There may also have been the ‘Alden factor’ to contend with. He is the son of Deirdre and John Alden, both longstanding Tory councillors in Birmingham. John is a former Lord Mayor and Deirdre twice stood for Parliament in Edgbaston but failed to beat Labour’s Gisela Stuart.

There’s little doubt that the young Alden cringes when he hears talk that he is now bearing the hopes of Birmingham’s best known political dynasty. Alas, for some city Tories the senior Aldens are a little bit Marmite, you either love them or….well, you don’t care for them.

Bobby has changed quite subtly over the past two years. He’s married now, has smartened his wardrobe a little, and is more likely to be seen with a jacket and tie in the council chamber. But the longish hair and goatee beard remain in place, a sign perhaps of his radical credentials.

Towards the middle of 2013, following the announcement of Mike Whitby’s peerage, the Alden leadership bandwagon appeared to be in danger of suffering a puncture. There were rumours that Whitby was lining up prospective Sutton councillor Ken Wood to succeed him as group leader.

That prompted a brief offensive from Alden supporters who campaigned behind the scenes for Whitby to step down immediately, something that would have triggered a leadership election before Wood could get back on to the council in May 2014.
In the end, Whitby remained in charge until May. Wood was duly elected but showed no sign of wanting the top job, which left Alden to take the crown unopposed.

Any nervousness from the Alden camp was understandable. After all, their man was the beneficiary of the failed 2009 coup against Whitby by Tory backbencher Randal Brew. Whitby beat off Brew’s challenge in a secret ballot, but the voting figures were never released publicly.

What can be said with some certainty is that Whitby was forced to make concessions to the revolting backbenchers, and this helped Alden Jnr come to prominence. He was appointed campaigns organiser with the remit to put some steel into the lacklustre Conservative elections performances under Whitby’s leadership.

Brew, incidentally, is now deputy Tory group leader under Alden.

The 2014 local elections in Birmingham were marked by an unexpectedly good Conservative performance, helped in part by Alden’s tactics of relentless ‘nuclear’ attacks on the unpopular £35 annual charge imposed by the council for collecting green waste. The ‘garden tax’, as the Tories dubbed it.

Labour’s share of the vote slipped and the Tories made a net gain of two seats. There are now 31 Conservative councillors, although the party requires 61 for an outright majority.

Bobby Alden told the Birmingham Post he believed the Conservatives could regain control of the council in two or three years. It would be an astonishing turn around if that transpired, but such is the belief in Alden’s campaigning abilities among Tory councillors that anything might happen.

Alden’s next big challenge is the 2014 General Election where he will be standing in Erdington against Labour MP Jack Dromey. This is a seat Alden’s father tried, and failed, to win in the 1980s.

For all of his political nous though, there will be few punters willing to bet on Alden becoming MP for Erdington next year. If his ambitions truly lie in Westminster he may have to look for a seat outside of Birmingham, or more likely plan for the possibility that the Conservatives will be the largest group in the council by 2018, although short of an overall majority. Another coalition with the Liberal Democrats could be on the horizon.

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