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Sir Albert Bore’s sticky summer may become winter of discontent

Sir Albert Bore’s sticky summer may become winter of discontent

🕔30.Jul 2013

bore 3Perhaps it is down to the unbearable heat of late, but the Albert Bore Must Go season is dragging on a bit this year.

The rules of this particular game are crystal clear. Some poor dupe on the Labour benches determines to topple the council leader at the May annual group meeting, and fails dismally to do so. Sir Albert basks in his victory for nine or ten months before the circus swings into action again.

A decade or so ago Labour was in the habit of indulging itself with two leadership elections a year. One held in October and one in May. But this was stopped, presumably on the grounds that you can only have so much fun in politics.

This year’s contest came and went, with a creditable performance from challenger John Clancy who managed to attract support from almost a third of the Labour group. Sir Albert duly won, but rumours about his future simply won’t go away.

The whispering in corridors and at social functions is based on a toxic cocktail of problems for Birmingham council’s controlling Labour group which, it is said, is beginning to cause concern within the party at regional and national level. At this rate, Sir Albert could be facing a winter of discontent as well as a sticky summer.

These concerns are topped by a grim financial position caused primarily by the Chancellor’s austerity programme. The gap between the money the council has available to spend and growing demands for social care, Sir Albert’s Jaws of Doom, has been estimated at £615 million between 2010-11 and 2016-17, which equates to 50 per cent of the controllable budget.

To make matters even worse, the council is facing a £1 billion bill to meet equal pay compensation claims brought by former employees who were underpaid and treated unfairly over many years. Some of this will be covered by additional borrowing, placing more strain on the revenue budget, but Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has ordered Birmingham to meet the remainder by selling assets – hence, controversial plans to dispose of the NEC and Birmingham Airport shares.

The financial crisis is being played out against the acute embarrassment of Britain’s largest public authority’s failing children’s social services, which will soon have been under Government special measures for five years with absolutely no sign of improvement. Strategic Director Peter Duxbury left this month after 15 months, the latest in a line of high-profile casualties.

A few days before Mr Duxbury departed it was announced by Education Secretary Michael Gove that Doncaster Council’s children’s social services were to be taken away from the local authority to be run by an independent trust. Children’s social services in Birmingham, it should be noted, were placed under special measures at the same time as Doncaster.

All of these events are difficult for Sir Albert, since the perceived failure of Labour-controlled Birmingham could play badly in the run up to the 2015 General Election, especially if fanned by the likes of Mr Gove and Mr Pickles. But it is a combination of other, possibly unconnected but nevertheless interesting events, which are beginning to persuade veteran Bore-watchers that something might be up:

  • The former leader of Lambeth Council, Steve Reed, now an MP, turned up in Birmingham recently to ‘cast an eye over’ the cabinet following a claim that members weren’t being ‘political enough’. During his tenure, Lambeth went from being rated London’s worst run borough to one of its best. Reed is said to have been astonished that Birmingham can find space for only one woman in its cabinet.
  • The deputy leader of Leeds Council, Judith Blake, has been advising inexperienced Birmingham children’s services cabinet member Brigid Jones. Sir Albert attracted criticism within the Labour group when he appointed Cllr Jones ahead of Cllr Cath Grundy.
  • Sir Albert is facing familiar criticism over an alleged tendency to exclude Labour backbenchers from any meaningful policy decision making process. Tensions emerged publicly when scrutiny committee chairman Carl Rice, usually regarded as a loyalist, told Sir Albert to his face that he wasn’t doing enough to ‘engage ordinary backbench members’. Sir Albert’s reply, effectively that it’s up to the District Committees to get on with it and ‘use their imagination’ to overcome the financial difficulties, will probably not go down very well.
  • There’s only so much ‘end of local government as we know it’ the Labour group can take. Sir Albert’s catch phrase plus his insistence on addressing the financial crisis by preparing for the decommissioning of entire services is beginning to grind, while also destroying what’s left of the morale of backbench councillors.
  • The selection process for 2014 council election candidates is in full swing. Observers have been surprised at the number of candidates chosen so far who are not regarded as obvious supporters of Sir Albert. Most embarrassingly for the council leader, there is a strong possibility that his partner, Victoria Quinn, will not be reselected in Sparkbrook. It’s understood that Cllr Quinn, who has not been in the best of health, has been asked for a list of all council and ward meetings she has attended in the past year. This is the type of tiresome challenge that Sir Albert would have swatted away a few years ago.
  • And finally, the oddest rumour of all. It is said that Sir Albert and his deputy, Ian Ward, have convinced themselves that a cabinet member failed to vote for Sir Albert during the May leadership election and backed Cllr Clancy instead. The search for the traitor continues.

It remains to be seen whether Sir Albert could be deposed without a nod and a wink from Labour’s regional office, or from even higher up the food chain at Westminster. The regional office is probably key, having been such staunch supporters of Sir Albert in the past.

Barring the emergence of a more powerful figure capable of galvanising the Asian group of councillors, Cllr Clancy is certain to have another crack at the leadership in May 2014. This is when the chicanery and plotting behind the selection process will become clear.

A differently constituted Labour group could swing behind Cllr Clancy, whose manifesto policy commitments impressed many colleagues this May. He will have had another year to work on the document and may be able to show that some of his ideas, asset sales for instance, have been taken on board by Sir Albert.

You’d have to think though that May 2014 is the cut off point for a successful leadership challenge. Labour nationally will not want Birmingham City Council’s Labour group to be engaging in open warfare as the 2015 General Election approaches.

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