From the Left Horizons website 1 June – https://www.left-horizons.com/about/
By a Birmingham Labour Party member
The removal of Birmingham City Council Leader Ian Ward on 20 May was a coup by the Labour Party HQ machinery, because the Starmer leadership panicked about commissioners being sent in to run the authority. The UK’s second city now has a new Leader and Deputy Leader – and not one single member of the Labour Party in Birmingham had a vote or even a say on it!
This is no left-right battle, but rather a ‘blue-on-blue’ struggle, as the right wing Labour Group were actually following the sort of policies and tactics Starmer and the Labour bureaucracy have advocated for local government.
In April the government just stopped short of sending in commissioners after a scandal caused by the failure of an IT system, Oracle, brought in to handle the City Council’s accounts. It was reported at the time that the new system had gone £18m over its supposed original cost of £20m to install. It has resulted in wages and bills being unpaid – teachers have even reported bailiffs turning up at their school because suppliers have not been paid.
Birmingham City Council is the largest local authority in Europe, with a £3bn annual budget. The Starmer leadership were terrified that should commissioners be sent in – which is still a possibility – the Tories and their media would say ‘look, Labour can’t even run a big council, how do they expect to run a national economy?’ And so the coup was unleashed and now Starmer can say ‘Ah yes, but I’ve already taken executive action on that…’ and hope that the issue disappears in the run up to the general election.
How the coup was organised
How the coup happened was like this. Last year the national Labour leadership announced the formation of ‘Campaign Improvement Boards’ made up of the Labour great and good in the local authority world. These, we were told, would work with Labour councils to see how they could improve local election results by better targeting of local services.
The CIB started ‘working’ with Birmingham City Council last September, and opened up a large can of worms. Having tried to square the circle of never-ending cuts, the right wing Labour Group has left a trail of chaos.
UNISON has pointed out that Birmingham has the worst industrial relations record of any local council. It had the long running Care Workers and Refuse collection battles, which could have been resolved far earlier on, but were dragged out because of belligerent management tactics. In the last six months of 2022 alone, the Labour council caused another three disputes. The Single Status dispute has still not been resolved, and thousands of pounds have been wasted by the City Council hiring barristers to challenge the unions in the courts.
Thousands more have been thrown at consultants for issues that could have been resolved in-house: the joke goes that there is a rotating door installed at the Town Hall for all the consultants who rapidly come and go, whether Ernest & Young, Price Waterhouse or KPMG. Yet nothing seems to get resolved.
The Oracle scandal has turned out to be far worse than anyone thought; after Cllr Ward was ousted, it was discovered that the overspend was not £18, but £80m! So we have now spent £100m on a system that still doesn’t function properly.
Dysfunctional and factional leadership
The government’s Regulator of Social Housing has found 23,000 of Birmingham’s social housing properties have serious health and safety risks.
There has been dysfunctional and factional leadership by the Labour Group. At present, the Labour Group elect a Leader, and then the Leader decides who is in the City Council Cabinet to run departments (and get the enhanced salaries): it has meant a right wing Labour Group squabbling like cats in a bag over who gets what.
Of course, all the above has been known and complained about by the trade unions and rank and file party members for years. Action is only being taken now because the Starmer leadership want to park a big problem before the general election.
The action was swift. The CIB produced a scathing 20-page report, accusing the Labour Group of “misogyny, harassment, and racism” in a “dysfunctional climate”. Cllr Ward was told to resign, and when he refused the NEC told the Labour Group that the NEC and officials from outside the region would select suitable new Leader and Deputy Labour candidates from those members of the Labour Group who put themselves forward, who the Labour Group could then vote on. The NEC and officials then decided that of those who had put themselves forward, only two were suitable. So – surprise, surprise – there was no need for an election, and the two were imposed.
Even Steve McCabe, right wing Labour MP for Selly Oak and chair of the Labour Friends of Israel, saw the coup as a ‘hatchet job’.
Labour’s right wing in Birmingham are furious. For those of us on the left, despite the seriousness of the situation, we have to admit at times it has been hard to keep a straight face. Here, those who support Starmer’s witch-hunt against the left are now being witch-hunted, with all the tools honed against Corbyn – chicanery, whispers, unevidenced generalised allegations, leaked reports (the BBC got the CIB report long before the City Councillors), investigations and vilification.
This was a “hatchet job” – right wing Labour MP
Bournville Constituency Labour Party, home of many pro-Ward councillors, has written a letter of protest to Starmer’s office, making the fair point that “…there is nothing in the report which provides an evidential basis for summarily removing Ian Ward”. Welcome to our world, comrades!
Prominent in the defence of Cllr Ward is the veteran of the Blair Government, Selly Oak MP, Steve McCabe. He, three other Birmingham Labour MPs and several pro-Ward City Councillors have written to Starmer to complain, with McCabe angrily protesting to the Birmingham media that the CIB report is a “hatchet job” (Birmingham Live, May 17).
What must have annoyed McCabe most was the instruction by the CIB report that: “There will be zero tolerance to intimidating behaviour, micro-aggressions, harassment and vexatious complaints. We remind Councillors of the NEC Codes of Conduct on Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination; Antisemitism and other forms of racism…“
Antisemitism? McCabe is, of course, Chair of Labour Friends of Israel. And now his City Council friends have been accused! It shows the antisemitism smear is as hollow used against the right as it was when it was used against the left. For the Starmer clique in Labour Party HQ, it is now just routine mud to fling at anyone who they deem to be a problem. It is actually an insult to the Jewish community that the extremely serious issue of antisemitism is now used so flippantly.
All that said the Labour leadership’s action against Birmingham is a threat to the whole Labour Party. Witch-hunting is now in the DNA of the unelected party officials (whose wages we pay) around the Labour leadership, who dish out the ‘Corbyn treatment’ to anyone they deem a threat. It is now routine for them to by-pass the Labour Party’s democratic processes and party rules.
Decades of local government cut-backs
At the heart of all of Birmingham’s problems are decades of local government cutbacks and 12 years of Tory austerity. Birmingham is in the mess it is in, because the cuts crisis is now so bad that it cannot simply be ‘managed’.
Instead of carrying out undemocratic and merely cosmetic changes to one right wing Labour council which has become an embarrassment, the Labour leadership should be organising all Labour councils – especially after the recent electoral gains – into a united campaign of protests, demonstrations and, if necessary, civic disobedience against the Tory attacks on local government, and to fight to restore the millions that have been stolen from local communities.
Indeed, if the Labour leadership was serious about addressing the problems in Birmingham, they would have come forward with alternative policies and solutions. Instead, who were the alternative Leader and Deputy Leader they hand-picked? Two equally right wing councillors who were members of the same City Council Cabinet that the Labour leadership has just dismissed as dysfunctional, misogynist and racist. All they have done is shuffle around the deckchairs.