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Council: Ward breaks new boundaries

Council: Ward breaks new boundaries

🕔17.May 2018

Ian Ward may have been the leader of Birmingham city council for little more than six months, but he’s already achieved two things of significance that eluded his immediate predecessor, writes Kevin Johnson

He’s persuaded the controlling Labour group to grant him a four-year term as leader, safeguarding his position until the next municipal elections in May 2022. He’s also pushed forward with a big cabinet reshuffle.

The four-year term replaces the current system whereby the Labour group re-elects the leader (or kicks the leader out) once a year at its AGM in May. This understandably leads to huge uncertainty with contenders jockeying for position and means that the leader spends too much time looking over his or her back and fearing a challenge.

The annual election has always been sold on the grounds that the group membership changes annually following council elections so the new members must have a chance to choose who leads them.

Now that the council has ditched elections by thirds and will only have elections once every four years, the argument for an annual leadership election is weaker.

However, Cllr Ward’s four-year victory comes with a major caveat. He can be challenged at any time during the four-year period if 40 per cent or more Labour councillors sign a motion of no confidence. This means that if 27 or more disgruntled members were to come together, a no confidence motion would have to be debated by the Labour group.

There are no signs at the moment of any widespread discontent with Ian Ward, although it is safe to say he has never been someone with a huge power base of backers in the Labour group, having basically inherited the leadership through being the deputy for so many years and there being no other clear choice.

John Clancy, whose short period as council leader ended in acrimony amid the chaos of last year’s bins strike, spent most of his time in office thinking of ways to persuade his colleagues to grant him a four-year term. They were not keen to do so.

It’s understood he considered a cabinet reshuffle on several occasions but was never confident enough to take the plunge. There were concerns over what the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel might think about a reshuffle, and more importantly worries as to whether Cllr Clancy’s delicate hold on the leadership, which he won by a single vote, would survive the fallout from a reshuffle.

Ian Ward must have been feeling confident when he presented his cabinet changes to the Labour group. Granted, his job was made easier by the resignation of Carl Rice, who will go down in history as one of the shortest-serving cabinet members in recent times, while the exit of Peter Griffiths, a huge John Clancy supporter, was always likely.

The sacking of Lisa Trickett was not entirely a surprise given the woeful performance of Birmingham’s refuse service during her period in charge and stories of more turmoil recently, but a brave and bold stroke by Cllr Ward nevertheless.

Cllr Trickett, never afraid to speak her mind, is not the sort of person you would want causing trouble on the backbenches. Chamberlain Files expects her to track sharply to the left and perhaps pick up supporters along the way.

The new cabinet members – Sharon Thompson (housing), Kate Booth (children’s services) and Jayne Francis (education) – have no previous experience in the top team, although Cllr Thompson is a former Labour group secretary and Cllr Booth a former headteacher.

Waseem Zaffar makes what is a surprising return for some, following his resignation last year after he intervened at a primary school on behalf of a four-year-old relative who was prevented from wearing the hijab.

Majid Mahmood, Birmingham’s most prominent supporter of Momentum, has been given a new cabinet role in charge of bins. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how Cllr Mahmood deals with the Unite union as the modernisation of the refuse service gathers pace.

Meanwhile, Cllr Ward’s opposite number, Cllr Robert Alden, has been re-elected unopposed as leader of the Conservative Group. Cllr Debbie Clancy has been elected Deputy Leader of the Opposition Group, succeeding Randal Brew who lost out at the 3rd May election.

Outside of the cabinet, Ian Ward may have some reason for concern. Scrutiny committee chairs are elected by the Labour group rather than being appointed by the leader and it just so happens that four of those selected are not regarded as being in the Ward camp.

These are Penny Holbrook, Tahir Ali, John Cotton and the never-say-die Sir Albert Bore. Cllr Cotton, the ultimate Boreite and still talked about in some circles as a possible leadership contender, is chair of the co-ordinating committee, effectively the head of scrutiny. There is no reason to suppose that Cllr Cotton would wish to make life difficult for Cllr Ward, but he does have the power to decide which issues to scrutinise.

In reality, Ian Ward’s leadership starts now. He has the cabinet he wanted, even if some of the scrutiny chairs may not be quite to his taste. All he has to do now is work out how to get the improvement panel off his back, which along with the bins was the other issue to consume and eventually destroy the Clancy administration.

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