Were the West Midlands Labour Party asleep all last summer asks Steve Beauchampé?
The decision by West Midlands Labour Party officials to bar those candidates standing to succeed Sir Albert Bore as leader of the Labour group on Birmingham City Council (and thus become council leader) from taking part in public hustings has served to portray what remains of democratically accountable politics in Birmingham in a very poor light. The move came in spite of the fact that at least four of the five candidates – Councillors John Clancy, Barry Henley, Penny Holbrook, Mike Leddy and Ian Ward – appear to have been willing to participate in such a debate. One event had already been announced and a second was apparently being planned.
Over a decade and a half of unwarranted and unwanted restructuring and interference by central government, including the imposition of the Leader and Cabinet system of governance, the wholesale privatisation and outsourcing of public services and the ongoing, ideologically driven, seismic cuts in central government funding, have eroded and emaciated local government, and with it key parts of its democratic structures and accountability. Adding substantially to this meddlesome litany is Chancellor George Osborne’s imposition in all but name of metro mayors upon regions whose electorate roundly and democratically rejected the mayoral model just three years earlier.
In Birmingham, however, the situation is much worse. Here the politically motivated Kerslake inquiry and report into the workings of the city council (instigated by former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles but now overseen by his replacement Greg Clark, though with Osborne’s fingerprints all over it) and subsequent establishment of an Improvement Panel to oversee its sometimes vague and often questionable recommendations, now threatens to impose unelected commissioners to run the city council if compliance with the reports findings are not undertaken by March 2016.
This intolerable assault on civic democracy, ignored by an apathetic national media that rarely notices Birmingham, will result shortly in a reduction in the number of elected councillors from 120 to 100 (at a time when the city’s population is rising), and a move to four-yearly elections (rather than the current model of local elections held in three years out of four) from 2018. The rationale for such drastic action is flimsy at best but, with Bore’s resignation widely believed linked to a crucial upcoming Improvement Panel report, there are even some who suggest that commissioners will be sent in irrespectively should Sir Albert’s replacement not meet with Clark and Osborne’s approval.
In a saga with few redeeming features it should be stressed that critics saw Bore’s leadership style as the antithesis of openness and accountability. To cite but two examples; under Bore’s stewardship constituency meetings, previously held in the evenings and in the localities they served, were moved to daytimes and staged at the Council House, whilst Cabinet job titles became almost indecipherable. Small changes perhaps, but ones that helped make the council more remote from citizens.
Add to this a long-standing and ongoing concern within the Labour group on Birmingham City Council about a culture of secrecy and barely disguised recrimination emanating from the top, and the end of Bore’s sixteen-year tenure as party leader might yet be the catalyst for a more inspiring and participatory form of politics within the city. But not just yet.
Regrettably it would appear that West Midlands Labour has learned little from the excitement, energy and debate generated by the recent national leadership campaign when eventual winner Jeremy Corbyn spoke to packed and overflowing halls nationwide, including in Birmingham, and party membership soared to its highest level for decades.
Given that the already announced hustings was sold out the appetite for political discourse on the left in this city clearly remains strong. For Labour it could have been a useful recruitment tool and an opportunity for the candidates to explain their vision for the city ahead of next May’s council elections, and at an event where representatives of other parties were not on the platform. Alternatively, a hustings solely for Birmingham Labour Party members and registered supporters could have provided an opportunity for members to engage both with senior councillors and the issues confronting the city.
One local political website has suggested that Labour’s hustings decision signals the death of democracy in the city. Well no, but it is a missed opportunity to reinvigorate the body politic, which in Birmingham has been largely moribund for a long time, thus creating a situation whereby the current government feels able to circumvent the will of the city’s electorate and barely a word of protest is heard.
NB – The Birmingham Labour Party has now announced that there will, after all, be public hustings although the date and venue are yet to be confirmed.