Amid all the talk of election hustings and cries for greater democracy in the business of running Birmingham, the only real step towards genuine public accountability has been the announcement of a metro mayor to run the Greater Birmingham region from 2017.
This figure will have the mandate to make greater demands on government and the people will have the opportunity to kick them out every four years if they’re not thought to be up to the job.
Hopefully, the party loyalties will be weakened so rather than getting local leaders based on what people think of the Prime Minister this week or the leader of the opposition next, there will be genuine consideration of what the person can deliver for the region.
The metro mayor will have the backing of and be answerable to the electorate.
Sadly, that is not the case with the Birmingham City Council leadership where the winner will be a Labour politician who has the support of the majority of Labour councillors – many of them elected from single party wards.
They will then have to do almost everything the Secretary of State for Local Government Greg Clark and his panel of experts tell them to within the financial straight jacket set by Chancellor George Osborne.
It has been widely remarked that if anyone strays from the set government script they will be replaced by Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell or another Whitehall commissioner within weeks.
So, with this in mind, it is to some a pointless exercise to see four Labour councillors putting themselves up for public hustings this week, the second of which hosted by the Birmingham Post.
But while it will do little to enhance their chances of winning an election (in fact the only way they can go is down if they speak out of turn or embarrass themselves) the hustings at least shows some degree of concern with what the wider city thinks.
Certainly, there were some within the Labour councillors’ group who felt their leadership election was an internal matter and none of our business.
The hustings also gives us a chance to see the calibre of individuals who are coming forward for one of the biggest jobs in local government.
And judging from the first round of hustings on Monday with John Clancy, Barry Henley, Penny Holbrook, Mike Leddy (now withdrawn from contest) and Ian Ward, there is very little between the candidates.
There were tiny pockets of disagreement as all tried to emphasise their relative strengths – Ian Ward is the experienced leader in waiting who won’t rock the boat; Penny Holbrook is the one who can do deals with business and community partners; John Clancy is the outsider who will squeeze pension funds, assets and contracts to pay for free school meals; and Barry Henley is the experienced corporate manager who would make as strong a chief executive as political leader.
Beyond that, however, they are all Labour councillors and they all signed up to the same broad manifesto at the last local election a few months ago.
They all ‘get’ that the Government is breathing down their necks demanding improvement in the organisation and they all talk about delivering on the agenda of restoring the children’s services department, getting a better grip on education and community relations to prevent a repeat of Trojan Horse and that creating economic growth, upskilling the workforce, building homes and creating jobs are crucial to the city’s future success.
They all talked of wider engagement, understanding the scale of the challenge ahead and, in a break with the dictatorial image of the man they hope to replace Sir Albert Bore, involving more of their colleagues in decisions and trusting others with responsibility.
They also flatly refused to rule out cuts or closures of services, such as children’s centres, as resources are set to become even more stretched with a new budget announcement from the Chancellor due next week.
There was so much common ground around the debate that it brought to mind the 2010 General Election debate where every other word uttered by Prime Minister Gordon Brown was ‘I agree with Nick’ as he attempted to piggy back on the Lib Dem leader’s popularity.
" Can I just make a point..."
The moment of clearest unity came when serial public meeting rabble-rouser Stuart Richardson wanted to give the room the benefit of his wisdom.
An activist for a range of left wing causes including anti-austerity campaigns, he is in the audience or protesting outside many political meetings in the city.
The starting point for much of his council-related commentary is that the council run a budget deficit to stave off cuts – it is something he has brought up time and time again, but something no sane council leader would do, unless they want to roll out the welcome mat to a government takeover.
So as the evening was drawing to a close and everyone was mentally ready to go, Mr Richardson stood up and said: “Can I just make a point about...” He never finished as his sentence was drowned out by an almost unanimous reply of “No”.