Labour’s decisive victory in the Birmingham City Council elections was at the upper end of the party’s expectations and raises fresh doubts about the immediate future prospects of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties on Britain’s largest local authority.
There are now 77 Labour councillors and to the astonishment of most people two of those are in Harborne and one is in Sutton Coldfield. The Conservative group is down to 28 members and the Liberal Democrats, having lost nearly all of the inner city wards they picked up off the back of Muslim opposition to the war in Iraq, have 15 councillors.
Birmingham will not have council elections next year, which will be a relief to Tory and Lib Dem organisers. But it is difficult to believe that either of the parties will be any more popular throughout the country when the next council elections arrive in 2014 – a year before a likely General Election.
The Tory heartlands of Birmingham are under attack and it is possible to envisage a slump on a par with the late 1990s when there were only 13 Conservative councillors in Birmingham. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are in their worst position since the early 2000s.
Both of the parties have leaders – Mike Whitby for the Tories and Paul Tilsley for the Liberal Democrats – who could be open to challenge. They will be at their most vulnerable position over the next few days.
It should come as little surprise that the council’s new Labour leader, Sir Albert Bore, and his senior colleagues and MPs are putting their resounding victory down to a public backlash against the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, which run Birmingham since 2004.
The truth behind Labour’s success, however, is not quite so straightforward.
Politicians tend to convince themselves that local issues decide local elections. In the real world, though, people taking part in council elections invariably vote with national issues in mind.
There are of course exceptions, where good candidates and a strong local campaign can make a huge difference. Conservative Deirdre Alden easily held her Edgbaston seat against the trend as did her colleague Bob Beauchamp in Erdington, while Lib Dem Jerry Evans managed to hold on in Springfield.
In truth, the coalition’s prospects were never very good. Labour’s victory would probably have been assured even if Mike Whitby and Paul Tilsley had taken to giving away gold ingots to passers-by in New Street.
Whatever the claims about the coalition’s shortcomings, the truth is that Coun Whitby’s administration was as much swept away by national voter sentiment swinging away from the Government to Labour as by any burning Birmingham issue.
The 40 seats contested on May 3 were last fought in 2008, a particularly low point for Labour nationally with the party riven by a feud between the rival camps of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The national scene has changed dramatically since then, with opinion polls between 2008 and 2012 indicating swings of almost 10 per cent from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to Labour.
It remains to be seen how history will judge the efforts of Coun Whitby and Coun Tilsley, although even the harshest critics should acknowledge their success in holding together a coalition for eight years against all of the odds.
An initial assessment of the coalition’s period in office must start with a cautionary reminder of the state of Birmingham in 2004, after more than 20 years of Labour rule.
Thousands of council houses were unfit to live in, old people’s homes did not meet modern standards, social services were among the worst in the country and sickness levels among local authority workers were running out of control. Grand projects were launched by the then council leader Sir Albert Bore in 2001, including a new library at Eastside, the regeneration of Paradise Circus and Arena Central, but none looked remotely like getting off the ground by 2004.
The Tory-Lib Dem coalition can point to some successes. All council housing now meets the Decent Homes standard, although the money that made this possible came from the Prudential Borrowing scheme introduced by a Labour government. Adult social services are now judged to be good and Birmingham is rightly proud of its extra care villages for older people.
Staff sickness levels have been driven down, from an average 17 days a year per employee in the early 2000s to about nine days now. The coalition has also driven through radical reform to the council’s pay structures, getting rid of guaranteed overtime payments and shift allowances for thousands of staff.
A controversial business transformation project, which involved handing lucrative contracts to Capita to transform the council’s outdated IT services, is said to be on course to save £1 billion over 10 years. Labour critics suspect that the savings figure has been inflated, and are concerned about the performance and influence of Capita’s Service Birmingham trading company.
Children’s social services remain in Government special measures and the care of vulnerable youngsters is still classed as inadequate. Unemployment levels are still among the highest in the country, deprivation is rife in many inner city wards and skills levels among the workforce are poor.
A criticism that is bound to be levelled against the coalition concerns the amount of time and energy expended by Coun Whitby on addressing what he saw as Birmingham’s “vision” problem. He appeared obsessed from the beginning with a struggle to find ways of painting Birmingham as a big player on the world stage, culminating in his “global city with a local heart” slogan which quickly appeared on every city council document.
Coun Whitby placed great emphasis on Birmingham’s appearances in market research and quality of life surveys, claiming that the city’s position in indexes run by Cushman and Wakefield and Mercer were a sign of great progress. He also appeared consumed by attempts to deliver “grand schemes” in Birmingham city centre, endlessly promoting the likes of Arena Central, the British Land Tower in Colmore Row, Paradise Circus, New Street Station and the new library in Centenary Square.
He can be justly proud that New Street, the library and the metro extension were delivered on his watch, and it is probable that he could have achieved more on the regeneration front if economic conditions had been favourable.
The jury is still out on Coun Whitby’s efforts to drum up international investment, which involved globe-trotting trips to China, India and America. Clearly, he can take credit for helping to secure Chinese investment in Longbridge, thereby preserving car production in Birmingham. He also managed to galvanise support from West Midlands councils for the runway extension at Birmingham Airport, no mean feat in itself.
Other supposed job creation projects, much-vaunted but never quite achieved, included broad hints claims that large un-named banks and major companies were on the brink of moving to Birmingham and that the city’s air link with Chicago was close to being restored.
The fact remains, however, that after eight years of coalition rule Birmingham is still struggling with many of the social problems that confounded Sir Albert Bore’s Labour administration between 1999 and 2004 – dreadfully high unemployment, too many poor schools, a low skills base and a stark divide between the wealth of the city centre and the deprivation of many inner city wards.
As Sir Albert put it minutes after knowing that Labour had won the 2012 election and he would be the new council leader: ”The level of social deprivation hasn’t changed in Birmingham for 30 years. We are not doing what we should be doing. Whatever it is we have done in the past hasn’t worked.
“We need to find a different way to tackle this problem.”
Whether he can succeed where others, including himself, have failed in the past will be the yardstick by which the new labour administration must be judged.
- Elections – Yes to Labour; No to Mayors (chamberlainforum.org)