The left wing establishment among the officer corps at Birmingham City Council is becoming a little gung ho over the near certainty of Labour returning to power at next May’s civic election after an eight-year absence.
I revealed last week that an advertisement for the new £155,000-a-year Strategic Director for Children, Young People and Families took the unusual step of informing potential applicants that Birmingham may be under socialist control before long.
That was followed by a public notice from the same department revoking a proposal to merge a couple of primary schools. The text took the trouble to explain that the scheme had to be withdrawn “following the coalition Government’s cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme”.
As a statement of fact, the reason for pulling the merger cannot be denied. But it is odd for councils to single out the Government for blame in a statutory public notice, although Tory critics of ‘Red’ Les Lawrence, the Conservative cabinet member for Children, Young People and Families, who has opposed aspects of his party’s national education policy on academies and free schools, may not be entirely surprised.
The content of the advertisement and the public notice was probably drawn up by a junior council official, but the fact that the wording went through unchallenged may, I suspect, be significant.
There can be little doubt that the tectonic plates at Birmingham City Council are beginning to shift in preparation for power change next May.
Labour needs to pick up just six seats at the elections to oust the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, although that figure will fall to five if Labour can beat Respect at next month’s Sparkbrook by-election.
To make matters even safer for Labour leader Sir Albert Bore, his party only has to bother about defending eight of the 40 seats being contested in May. There is speculation that Labour, attacking seats it lost at the height of its unpopularity in 2008, could end up with 75-plus councillors.
Party strategists are even talking about the possibility of inflicting an amazing double whammy on the Conservatives by winning in Harborne and Edgbaston, where long-serving Tories John and Deirdre Alden are up for re-election.
And for those who suggest Edgbaston will never go red, don’t forget that Tory councillor James Hutchings held on this year with a majority of only 22 votes.
Some of the council’s very senior, well paid, officers are already beginning to make private overtures to Sir Albert and his deputy leader Ian Ward. They want to get a sense of Labour’s policy priorities so that they can “hit the ground running” after May, apparently.
Many of them will perhaps recall the exodus of alleged left-wing officials that took place when the Tory-led coalition came to power in 2004. Some went voluntarily because they did not want to work with the coalition, others were encouraged to leave.
Their discussions with Bore and Ward may shed some light on a series of policy commissions set up by Labour to set the direction of the new administration.
Lying at the top of this agenda is a fresh approach to localisation and devolution, something that is seen as vitally important if Birmingham is to have an elected mayor by the end of next year.
Put simply, almost all of Birmingham’s 120 councillors will find themselves with little to do other than busy themselves with ward-based casework if power transfers to one individual and a smaller cabinet.
There will be scrutiny committees but, as now, they will have no powers to force the mayor’s hand.
Labour will be looking to find ways of strengthening devolved services at constituency and ward level. In theory, this makes a lot of sense.
If an elected mayor is to make a difference to Birmingham, he or she must not spend an inordinate amount of time running refuse collection, street cleaning, community libraries, parks and leisure services at a very local level, but should instead concentrate on the big strategic issues of regeneration, employment, planning, transportation, housing and education.
The next city council elections and the referendum on whether Birmingham should have a mayor are seven months away. The mayoral election, assuming there is a yes vote in the referendum, may be held in November 2012.
The council’s Labour group has been criticised by some of its own members for failing to campaign actively, preferring it is said to wait for the political pendulum to swing back and propel Sir Albert to power.
The national political climate, particularly the slump in Liberal Democrat support, is likely to deliver the city council to Sir Albert even if he sits back and says nothing between now and May.
But Labour in general, and Sir Albert as a potential mayoral candidate, owe it to the people of Birmingham to set out their policy proposals in fine detail in a public forum well before the May elections.