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Support for Afzal mayoral bid draining away ahead of crucial Labour meeting

Support for Afzal mayoral bid draining away ahead of crucial Labour meeting

🕔01.Feb 2016

Support for Muhammad Afzal becoming the next Lord Mayor of Birmingham is draining away, even among fellow Asian councillors. But the result of a crucial Labour group meeting tonight which will be invited to ‘sack’ Cllr Afzal cannot be taken for granted, writes Paul Dale.

John Clancy could not have known when he would face his first crisis after becoming the leader of Birmingham city council, but he must have hoped it would arrive further down the line than a mere 62 days.

Just two months after ousting Sir Albert Bore to get the job, Cllr Clancy is fighting hard to prevent his administration from being destabilised and dragged into damaging in-fighting.

The problem he faces has nothing to do with the Kerslake Review or the improvement panel or even the council budget and £90 million of spending cuts. As is so often the case in politics, unforeseen ‘events’ have exploded from nowhere and clobbered Clancy on the back of the head – namely, the nomination for the next Lord Mayor of Birmingham.

Labour councillors will meet tonight and decide whether to approve a motion of no confidence in Muhammad Afzal, who a month ago was selected by the very same Labour councillors to be the next Lord Mayor – albeit by a majority of only one vote.

Afzal is fighting for his mayoralty, and his dignity, following a series of appalling gaffes at an anti-racism rally in which he called the Prime Minister an Islamophobe, allegedly described parts of the Prevent counter-terror programme as racist and questioned whether British Muslims were really going to Syria to fight for Isis, and if they were suggested that 500 was a pretty small percentage of the UK’s total Muslim population.

While at the rally, he posed for a photograph next to a banner proclaiming “No to Prevent, No to state racism”, but later claimed he hadn’t noticed the banner.

He accused the Birmingham Mail, where a report about his remarks appeared, of sensationalism and said his comments were taken out of context. He denied calling Mr Cameron an Islamophobe. The Mail, however, had a tape of his speech in which he can clearly be heard calling the Prime Minister and Islamophobe.

This would be bad enough if Afzal was just an ordinary backbench councillor taking his turn at becoming Lord Mayor. He does, though, have standing in the city as chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque and that means anything he says in public will always be viewed with interest.

To make matters worse, he is the subject of an official complaint from the Muslim Women’s Network over comments he is said to have made about domestic violence and forced marriage.

He apparently told the group that men were more often domestic violence victims – and that forced marriages were no longer a problem. He then went on to state that “domestic violence was happening mainly in the Christian community because they get drunk”, according to Muslim Women’s Network chair Shaista Gohir.

Cllr Clancy, in an unprecedented intervention by a council leader into mayoral matters, has told Afzal to his face that he cannot be the first citizen and should “consider his position”. Cllr Afzal, having considered his position, is determined to plough on and will go to tonight’s meeting and attempt to face down Cllr Clancy and retain his position as the party’s mayoral choice.

The council leader has made it clear that he fully supports the Prevent programme, which seeks to identify possible radicalisation in classrooms and is being extended by Ofsted to cover private Muslim schools, the madrassas.

One of the first visits Clancy made on becoming council leader was to West Midlands Police to receive a counter-terror briefing. Although he has not said as much, there’s a clear impression that the council leader possesses information about the terror threat in Birmingham that cannot be made public.

He is determined, in any event, that Birmingham cannot afford to have a Lord Mayor whose comments on terror and radicalisation might at any moment invite damaging national headlines.

But Afzal is not going quietly and undoubtedly still has supporters among Birmingham Labour councillors. The question is, does he have sufficient backers to see off Clancy?

Cllr Afzal issued a statement through the West Midlands Labour Party, which in itself must be unsettling for Cllr Clancy. After all, the involvement in Birmingham’s affairs of the regional party usually spells trouble.

In the statement, Cllr Afzal said:

I should have chosen my words more carefully – of course I fully support Prevent.

I have a good relationship with counter terrorism officers in Birmingham and have ensured that Prevent training has been delivered at Birmingham Central Mosque.

There is a cross party consensus in support of Prevent on Birmingham city council and, of course, I too fully support the programme.

Cllr Clancy said he made his mind up to sack Cllr Afzal the moment he heard the Birmingham Mail audio tape and realised the Lord Mayor-elect had called Mr Cameron an Islamophobe.

Cllr Clancy will probably win tonight’s vote, but he cannot be certain of doing so. Much depends on the attitude of Labour councillors with a Pakistani/Kashmiri or Bangladeshi heritage, who make up just over a quarter of the group.

They initially backed Afzal’s nomination for Lord Mayor and many went on Facebook to congratulate him when he was selected for the mayoralty.

Significantly at the end of last week, Cllr Majid Mahmood, the most influential member of Clancy’s grout of Asian councillor supporters, used his Twitter feed to announce that he “and colleagues” could no longer support Cllr Afzal for the mayoralty.

Cllr Mahmood added that “a large block of the Asian councillors who initially backed Cllr Afzal will no longer support him. Afzal’s position as Lord Mayor is untenable.”

Supporters of former council leader Sir Albert Bore are said to be gathering around Cllr Afzal. Bore and Afzal have been close for years, so in many ways tonight’s vote will be a re-run of the Labour leadership ballot which saw Cllr Clancy beat Sir Albert by a single vote.

It is unthinkable having so explicitly made his views clear that the council leader will not get his way. But if Cllr Afzal does somehow succeed in keeping the mayoralty, the seeds will have been sewn for a bloody civil war in Labour’s ranks.

Traditionalists do not want the May annual council meeting where the ‘mayor making’ takes place to be sullied by the unsavoury sight of politics spoiling the highlight of the civic calendar.

Before then, at the March full council meeting, the Lord Mayor elect is formally chosen.

Liberal Democrat councillors have already made it clear they will vote against Cllr Afzal becoming Lord Mayor elect. Group leader Jon Hunt said: “Many of us had serious reservations about his candidacy before the recent revelations about his appearing at an anti-Prevent meeting and other allegations that have been made.

In the light of all the new information emerging we do not think he should be Lord Mayor of Birmingham, a role that involves representing all the city’s citizens. I would urge him to withdraw gracefully.

Conservatives are likely to take a similar line and will either abstain or vote against Cllr Afzal.

It won’t come to that of course, if Cllr Afzal gets his marching orders from Labour councillors tonight.

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