Simmering tension at the top of Birmingham Labour Party has erupted with another attempt to oust veteran city council opposition leader Sir Albert Bore. Public Affairs Correspondent Paul Dale talks to John Clancy, who is the seventh councillor to challenge Sir Albert for the top job in 12 years.
Fresh from toppling the Conservatives in Quinton after a five-year break from the city council, John Clancy wasted no time in making his ambitious intentions clear.
Four days after the polls closed and minutes after swearing in as a new Labour councillor, he was hitting the telephone lines in an attempt to persuade colleagues to back his challenge to Sir Albert Bore, who Clancy is portraying as yesterday’s man and past it.
Paradoxically, his challenge coincided with Labour’s best election performance in Birmingham for years – the party, under Sir Albert’s leadership, picked up 14 seats and now has 55 out of the 120 city councillors, six short of an overall majority.
But this is not good enough, according to Coun Clancy, who says a lack of ambition prevented Labour from taking control of the council this year.
Describing Sir Albert’s hold on power as “impotent”, Coun Clancy accused him of complacency and insisted that with a greater focus on direct campaigning, Labour would have been able to win power outright from Birmingham’s Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition at the 2011 polls.
Some of those on the receiving end of his pitch were astonished at the brazen approach of a man prepared to gamble on getting the top job so soon.
But Clancy’s campaign has been six years in the making. In 2005, when he was last on the council, he teamed up with fellow Labour councillor Mike Olley in a joint bid to topple Sir Albert. Coun Olley put himself forward for group leader, Coun Clancy for deputy. Both were soundly beaten and stood down from the council soon afterwards.
Returning for a second crack, this time gunning for Sir Albert directly, Coun Clancy said: “This is something I was always going to do. Labour should have been in power in Birmingham this week and the fact that we are not says a lot about the group leadership.”
Coun Clancy, aged 49, a former teacher and now a lecturer at Birmingham University Business School, accused Sir Albert of being a “part-time leader” who was more interested in his job as chairman of the Birmingham University Hospital NHS Trust than in running the council group.
He promised to fight for the interests of small businesses if he ever becomes council leader and to adopt more imaginative ways of bringing investment to Birmingham, in particular by persuading trustees of the £10 billion West Midlands Local Government Pension Fund to buy “Brummie Bonds”.
Insisting that he would “invoke the spirit of Joseph Chamberlain”, Coun Clancy said Birmingham had to aim to return as a real force in municipal politics.
Coun Clancy (Lab Quinton) added: “There should have been an expectation that we could win control of the council at the 2011 elections. But certain seats were regarded as unwinnable even though, with a bit of hard work on the ground, they could have been won.
"We could easily have taken four more Tory seats and three more from the Liberal Democrats, putting Labour into power. A lot of people have come on to the Labour group, some former councillors who have returned, who like me are damn good campaigners.
"There’s a sense that we need to make a fresh start under a new leader.”
Coun Clancy hit out at what he called a “spread sheet politics” approach by Sir Albert and his close supporters, apparently writing off many of Birmingham’s wards as difficult to win and therefore not worthy of a serious campaigning.
He accused Sir Albert of making a fundamental mistake by assuming that Labour will cruise to victory in 2012 by taking control of the council.
Although that is likely to happen, it seems certain that Tory council leader Mike Whitby will by then have been installed as shadow mayor, leaving Labour with a majority of council seats but with no power.
The Labour group was consumed by a diet of endless meetings in the Council House and rarely got out among ordinary Brummies, he said.
Coun Clancy added: “Six years ago we had 53 councillors, today we have 55. We have had a part-time leader who has produced part-time results.
“There’s a lack of belief that we can win. We have indulged in spread sheet politics, defining offensive marginals and defensive marginals instead of getting out there and campaigning hard across the city. Albert didn’t go to Quinton, he didn’t go to Edgbaston or Weoley. He doesn’t campaign.
“It is a Labour-voting city in terms of the votes cast at local elections, yet we haven’t run the city for six years. That’s impotence.
“It is time for Albert to stand up. He has not been challenged for six years. He has to stand up and explain what he has to offer. It’s not a question of whose side you are on, it is a question of whether you are on the side of the past or of the future.
“I can be the future for the Labour group. At the moment it’s only got the past. People should celebrate the election results, but mourn the fact that we are not in power already, and that has to be down to Albert’s leadership.”
He is calling for Birmingham to become the city of a thousand trades again, this time based on small and medium sized enterprises, adding: “We should not have built our city on retail development like the Bullring.”
Coun Clancy is critical of Sir Albert’s support for the city centre Local Enterprise Zone, believing that the Labour leader should not be accepting the demise of the regional development agency and a Conservative-Liberal Democrat economic policy.
He added: “When Albert came out in the middle of the campaigning in favour of the city centre enterprise zone I though that was completely inappropriate. Accepting a Tory policy espoused by Thatcher and Heseltine I found very irritating.
He refers to Sir Albert’s economic policy as a “welfare approach”, sitting back and waiting for the Government to hand some money to Birmingham. Far more can and should be done pro-actively to generate funding locally, Coun Clancy believes.
“There has been a focus on attracting Londoncentric finance coming in investing only in the city centre where they think prestige projects are to be found. I want to see investment in the rest of the city.
"Rather than waiting for London to dole out money my approach is that we should be looking at other sources to bring in money. We as a council should be investing directly in SMEs, taking equity stakes in new businesses. Our return would be dividends on those shares.”
Coun Clancy rejected a suggestion that he has teamed up with former Erdington Labour MP Sion Simon, who is running to become elected mayor of Birmingham. Clancy and Simon are close to Mike Olley, who has been advising both about their campaigns.
But Coun Clancy said: “We will have to see what happens. I am not aligning myself with Sion Simon, I am not dis-aligning myself with Sion Simon.
“I have a vision for Birmingham that is quite distinctive and new.”
Sir Albert Bore appeared to be taking a relaxed view of the latest challenge to his leadership.
He said: “I have a sense of déjà vu about these things. I am sure the Labour group takes cognisance of the role I have played in recent years.”