Reflecting on a lively local election result night in Birmingham and how it has changed the city’s politics.
If the leaders of Birmingham’s Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition secretly believed they might be spared a kicking by the electorate, they were swiftly brought back down to earth from the moment the first city council election result was declared. Although Lib Dem deputy council leader Paul Tilsley won convincingly in Sheldon, his majority was halved.With Labour rapidly picking up support in east Birmingham – where the Liberal Democrats are used to weighing rather than counting votes – it was never going to be a very comfortable night for at least one half of the coalition.
Acocks Green, former Labour cabinet member Stewart Stacey romped home with 48 per cent of the vote and a 941-vote majority with a 21 per cent swing from the Lib Dems.In Yardley South, Lib Dem councillor David Osborne, chairman of the licensing committee, could do nothing to hold back the Labour tide, losing his seat by almost 200 votes with a swing of 13 per cent.
Labour performed even more creditably in Hodge Hill, taking 58 per cent of votes cast and an undreamt of majority of almost 2,500.In south Birmingham, Labour’s Brigid Jones thrashed Lib Dem Robert Wright in Selly Oak with a majority of more than 1,000 votes.
Tilsley headed straight for the Council House media centre as soon as his result was declared to face the press head-on, in stark contrast to Tory council leader Mike Whitby who was nowhere to be seen all night.And, as Lib Dem and Tory seats began to fall like dominos, Tilsley stuck to what was obviously a pre-prepared, and not entirely plausible, explanation.
Birmingham Liberal Democrats, he declared, were being punished by the electorate for tough but necessary decisions about spending cuts taken by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government.The national coalition had the resolve to ‘sort out the economic mess inherited from Labour’ and the country would eventually come to recognise that and be grateful, Coun Tilsley said.
The implication was that the Birmingham coalition was being unfairly punished for a £330 million four-year cuts package forced on to it by the Government and that this had nothing to do with the local councillors.
The city council Liberal Democrat group now has 24 seats, having lost seven at last week’s elections. The Conservatives are reduced to 39, having lost six, while Labour is easily the largest party with 55 seats, although tantalisingly six short of an overall majority.
Coun Tilsley, in characteristically brutal form, dismissed the chances of the Lib Dems switching sides to back up Labour in a coalition as akin to Winston Churchill teaming up with Hitler after the Second World War – a remark which Labour seized upon, accusing Tilsley of likening their party to Nazis.
All good knock-about stuff, and entirely predictable.But while the Liberal Democrat’s poor performance was in line with what was happening across the country, Birmingham’s Conservatives performed particularly badly, much to the amazement of one senior Tory councillor who days before the election was seeking to place bets with friends that his party’s share of the vote in Birmingham would increase.
The Tories have had problems since the mid-1980s, when they ceased to sit alongside Labour in a regular two-party tussle for control of the council.
The rise of the Liberal Democrats over the past 15 years put paid to the Labour-Tory power swapping, but even good times nationally for the Conservatives have not usually been reflected in Birmingham.
The Tories have consistently struggled to gain above 30 per cent of votes cast at elections and have been on a downward spiral since 2000.
You have to go back almost 20 years to find the last time the Conservatives managed to hold 60 seats on the city council.
This year the share of votes for the Conservatives fell to 27.3 per cent, against 48.5 per cent for Labour and 14.7 per cent for the Lib Dems – a clear indication that, when it comes to the 2013 mayoral election, Labour will expect to win easily.
The trend in numbers of votes cast is interesting. Between 2007 and 2011, Labour’s share rose by 51,000 votes while the Tory share went up by 5,000 and the Liberal Democrat share fell by 14,000.Rumblings of discontent among the Tory grassroots are beginning to show.
Former councillor Gareth Compton, chairman of the Erdington Conservative Association, spoke for many of the younger party members when he described last Thursday as ‘a terrible night for the Tories in Birmingham’.
Mr Compton wrote on an internet blog site: ‘Although one shouldn’t leap to judgment on explanations for results like this, it seems clear that the bad Tory results here are out of line with a solid Tory performance nationally.’Locally, we took Worcester for example.”Clearly, the bad result in Birmingham must be down to some local factors, it can’t be dismissed as mid-term blues.
Time to reflect.’Although it was a bad result for the Conservatives, things could have been far worse. Tory candidates held on by their fingernails in three wards – Adrian Delaney won by 12 votes in Weoley, James Hutchings scraped home by 21 votes in Edgbaston and Reg Corns won by 54 votes in Northfield.
There was a glimmer of hope in Kingstanding, where Gary Sambrook recorded a nine per cent swing to the Conservatives and narrowly failed to take a safe Labour seat, losing by just 174 votes.
The result of the night, which ought to send shockwaves through the Tory machine, was in Harborne where Labour won with a 584-vote majority.
The ward, which is also represented by Tory council leader Mike Whitby, was thought by most Conservatives to be impregnable.There appears to be a growing realisation among some Tories that the party must change its ways if it is ever to recover in Birmingham.
After the 2010 General Election, when the Conservatives again failed to win Edgbaston, a briefing paper drawn up by a senior local Tory official blamed complacency, poor organisation and a failure to recognise changing demographics. The party was not doing enough to respond to a growing Asian electorate, was not appealing to younger people nor, crucially, the AB professional classes.The paper was all but ignored by Tory high command in Edgbaston, and suggestions for improving the party’s popularity in time for this year’s council elections were not enacted.After last week’s polls, the Conservative Home website featured an article by its local government editor Harry Phibbs which claimed Birmingham Tories were ‘drinking in the last chance saloon’ by continuing in coalition with left-leaning Liberal Democrats.Mr Phibbs wrote: ‘The council’s administration needs to show how it is different to how it would be if Labour were in charge. Under the Conservatives with Coun Les Lawrence in charge of children’s services, the council opposes academies, opposes free schools and presides over social work failings.’ There has been dissent within the Conservative group over the council continuing socialist policies such as restricting competition and setting up a municipal bank.
Residents are entitled to wonder how a Labour council would be any worse than a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. ‘The comments infuriated Con Whitby’s closest supporters, with chief whip Fergus Robinson declaring that Mr Phibbs’s accusation of Tories pursuing socialist policies was ‘ridiculous’.Coun Robinson added: ‘The politics of coalition are not straightforward. We have to consider seriously proposals by our partners, and we cannot always get everything we want, but we also have to deal with the fact that this are not accurately reported by the local press – who play up any apparent divisions, both within each party and between the two partner parties.’There you have it.
Coun Tilsley slams ungrateful voters for not understanding the difficult position the Government finds itself in, while Coun Robinson falls back into the comfort zone of blaming the media.Labour leaders, one assumes, can hardly believe their luck.Birmingham City Council after the 2011 electionsLabour…55Conservatives…39Liberal Democrats…24Respect…2