The put-upon Birmingham Labour group has the manner of a collective headless chicken right now as the leadership of Sir Albert Bore faces its toughest test.
In fact it might be said a headless chicken has a better sense of direction.
The resignation from his cabinet of James McKay amid criticism of Sir Albert’s leadership style and lack of vision has prompted a flurry of activity – but so far much of it seems to be lacking any direction or coherence.
I spoke with a group of Labour councillors at some length as they digested the news of the resignation. Discretion prevents me naming names, but it is fair to say there were as many views and thoughts on how to proceed as there were people round the table.
From one corner there was the ‘anyone but Albert’ call. The fear here is that the Local Government Secretary Greg Clarke and the hand-picked Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel will never be satisfied in their quest to pile shame on Birmingham City Council as long as Sir Albert remains in post, no matter how much he tries to bow before them. Therefore his position is untenable and he should go.
Another strongly held view is that they are better off with the devil they know.
The view here was to let Sir Albert take all the flak from Government – both the improvement panel and the next round of austerity cuts – and then pick a successor who can start afresh next spring.
They say he should get credit for the regeneration stuff – Paradise Circus, the relocation of HSBC – which is very much his forte.
That corner also felt there was no-one else capable of leading, although a few names were banded about.
Sir Albert’s main rival has been Quinton councillor John Clancy . He has a small solid group of cheerleaders, but despite attempts to present more positive manifestos and a vision, he has failed to muster enough wider support in four leadership bids and many still question whether he can up his game now.
Deputy leader Ian Ward was dismissed in one corner as not being of leadership material. Both Clancy and Ward were widely regarded as having had their chance to make a pitch and blown it.
It was thought that James McKay was not popular enough among the members, and having been a councillor for barely four years, still lacks the experience to be anything other than a deputy. Some believe his handling of the green waste roll-out while cabinet member for bins let the side down and cost a few councillors their seats in 2014.
A popular choice with some would be the current skills and culture portfolio holder Penny Holbrook – she has been highly praised for her collaborative approach running Erdington district, has made decent progress on youth skills and employment issues and most importantly has been effective in fronting the damaging cuts to the Library of Birmingham. But I am told that she is very much committed to the current leadership.
The problem for Sir Albert is that there is little enthusiasm for his leadership. Some blame that on external forces such as financial double whammy of austerity and equal pay which has hampered his administration, others on his remote ‘my way or the high way’ approach to leadership. The reality is probably somewhere in between.
The only public support for Sir Albert has trickled out from his cabinet . But only those in the “they would say that wouldn’t they” group – transport and economy cabinet member Tahir Ali, children’s services chief Brigid Jones and housing and neighbourhoods cabinet member John Cotton.
There will be external pressure either way from MPs (who seem increasingly hostile to Sir Albert), the Labour Party machine (which is backing him at present), the Improvement Panel and the Local Government Secretary (who have made it clear they don’t think he has done well enough to deal with the deep seated problems in Birmingham Council House).
However, at the end of it all, the only people who can realistically settle this leadership issue is the Birmingham Labour group.
But, while they remain so divided, so conflicted and so unsure as to what to do next, the whole sorry saga will rumble on.
Definitely not in the loop
If the Labour group backbenchers feel out of the loop, imagine how far down the pecking order the opposition Tory and Lib Dem members are.
Deirdre Alden is deputy chairman of the council’s Future Council scrutiny committee and says they have had just one meeting to date.
Meanwhile, the cabinet members have all made presentations to the Labour group’s private meeting.
She says: “Surely it sums up what is wrong with the current Labour leadership, that such presentations were made to the Labour group and not to a properly constituted council scrutiny committee which has been set up to look into this subject. Not only will they not talk to partners, as Councillor James McKay points out, it seems they won’t talk to other members of the council who are democratically elected.”
And finally – the opposition leaders are not escaping criticism, it seems, with a rumour flying around that both Tory chief Robert Alden and Lib Dem leader Paul Tilsley have been asked to go on a Local Government Association training course for ‘effective opposition’.
Apparently the Improvement Panel feel that more than just the current Labour leadership needs some education. Coun Tilsley, while recognising that after 60 years in politics, he may need a refresher, adds that all councillors are being lined up for training and this is just a Labour diversion tactic.