Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ooof.

"The honourable member for Birmingham Yardley - and I use 'honourable' in broadest possible sense."
John Cryer MP

(Hat tip to @politic_animal)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Short Memory, Deirdre?

The Birmingham Mail has revealed that 740 acute beds are likely to be cut across hospitals in Birmingham. Cllr Deirdre Alden, chair of the City Council health scrutiny committee, has 'hit out,' saying that that "members of the public are going to be disengaged because a year ago, we were all promised no cuts to the NHS and that's clearly not the case." Not just a year ago, Deirdre, the Tories are still promising that NHS spending has been protected. Sadly, the reality on the ground is rather different.

Deirdre omits to remind us that last year, as a Conservative candidate, she was helping to spread the lie that the NHS was safe in Cameron's hands. Glad to see that the scales have fallen from her eyes. What took you so long, Deirdre?

In other news, it appears that the petition backed by the Tory candidate in Solihull to keep the local maternity unit has failed and it will change to a midwife-led unit, with difficult births transferred across the border into Birmingham's Heartlands Hospital.

Cameron claims to love the NHS - they say you always hurt the ones you love.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Flying the flag - Pickles tackles the big issues of the day

As councils across the country slash their spending - closing libraries, scrapping youth services and cutting adult services - Commissar Pickles goes after the really big issues that are causing distress up and down the country. And Daz Wright is there to report on Eric's attack on petty regulations about flying flags.

Eric said
"If people want to celebrate something that is important to them by flying a flag they should be able to do so without having to fill in forms or paying town hall officials for the privilege. We will make it easier for people to celebrate their allegiance to a cause, a county or a local organisation if they choose to do so... Local and national flags unite people of every creed, class and colour. Community cohesion is strengthened - not undermined - by flying the flag."
Fine words from the Secretary of State.

But hang on a second, the DCLG press release points out that there is already no need to seek permission to fly flags of any country, county, the EU, the UN, the Commonwealth or any saint associated with a county. So, you have to wonder if, as Daz suggests, this is an attempt to support the pirate community in this country or whether this is just Pickles ranting for cheap publicity.

It must be the pirates.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Labour rampant in Birmingham

Whatever else the press may say about Thursday, from the point of view of Labour in Birmingham, it was a damn fine day - and we've not had too many of those in local elections over the past decade. I think the general view prior to May 5th was that we would do quite well - the wind is with us and the Liberal Democrat national polls are awful, but it is hard to translate national opinion polls into local results, as there are so many factors that get in the way. Before the election, I forecast that nine seats would change hands and I think that this was reasonable - at the start of the year, I wondered if it could be as few as four or five, as the cuts have yet to bite deep. I don't think anyone thought that fourteen would be on the cards - still less that we could have taken another three or four with a little more luck on the day.

Comparisons between years are interesting - 2010 was unusual in that a parliamentary election coincided with a city council election and that resulted in a higher turnout, so perhaps forms an unreasonable comparison with a 'normal' election year. Perhaps a better baseline is 2007, which is the last year that these seats were contested in the election cycle.

In 2007, Labour accrued 32% of the city-wide vote, the Liberal Democrats managed 21.5% and the Tories 27.1%. The depth to which the Liberal Democrats have sunk are revealed when you realise that Thursday saw the Liberal Democrats' support drop to just 14.7% as Labour rocketed to a vote share of 48.5% - a massive net 11.7% swing (Butler swings of 10% are rare). The Tory vote held up and actually slightly improved - rising imperceptibly to 27.3%, rises in safe seats masking drops in others. Turnout was slightly up across the city, from 35% in 2007 to 37.6% this year, with the additional numbers largely going to Labour, boosted by 14,000 voters switching allegiance from the Liberal Democrats. That's the story in a nutshell - angry Labour voters turning out and disaffected Liberal Democrats switching allegiance. This may mark the beginning of the end of a carefully-constructed Liberal Democrat electoral base and the return of two party politics. Certainly, the vote share for Labour is huge - my figures go back a decade and I have nothing similar. 132,000 people voted Labour, as compared to 81,000 in 2007, with the Tories also gaining a few voters - 74500 over their 68700 of the previous campaign, but within their typical range around the 70,000 midpoint. The Liberal Democrats reduced significantly - down from 54600 to 40100, their lowest in a decade and a long way away from their 72,000 votes in 2004 in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

Overall, the Liberals were defending ten seats and lost seven, holding the others with severely reduced majorities - one went to recount and another could have been lost with a little more luck. The Tories fared better, defending 16 and losing six, although three were retained with ultra narrow majorities - Weoley with just 12, Edgbaston by 21 and Northfield by 54 and could easily have gone the other way.

Some of the swings are truly seismic. Acocks Green (my home ward) was previously considered a safe seat with a majority of 1620 when it was last contested by the incumbent Penny Wagg, which was utterly destroyed and converted to a 941 majority for Labour's Stewart Stacey this year. The seat has been a solid Liberal Democrat ward since the 1990s, apart from a brief period when a by-election coincided with a general election in 2001 and there was a solitary Labour councillor for a year. Feeling on the ground was positive and we felt confident of running them close, with a chance of a narrow win, but it became apparent during the day on the doorstep that something was afoot, although the scale of the win surprised us. The swing here was a whopping 21.1%. Just across the way in South Yardley, we took out veteran councillor David Osborne with a 14.8% swing.

Hall Green was one of the most intriguing wards, uniquely for Birmingham, a genuine Tory/Lib Dem contest. Aware that reports from the ground said that the Liberal Democrat vote had evaporated, I assumed that some of that would slide to Labour, but it would leaving the Tories in the box seats. The reality - spotted by some other seasoned observers late on in the campaign - was that there was a key opportunity for Labour to come through the middle of this division, which they duly did to take a seat that has not been Labour's since 1945, with a massive swing of 23% to Labour. Essentially, disaffected Liberal Democrats crossed the floor en masse.

Something similar happened in Moseley and Kings Heath, one seat that always felt would shift to us with the demographics and which came across with a 14.8% swing as those soft-left Liberal Democrats realised what the party had sold them and decided that they couldn't stomach it, evicting Emily Cox - John Hemming's mistress.

Hodge Hill was a racing certainty as a Labour gain and the Liberal Democrats understood this quite early on - they captured it in 2007 as the Labour vote was split by an independent campaigner and it came home to us this year with an 18.5% swing. Selly Oak saw the student vote exact their revenge upon the Liberal Democrats as they voted Labour to overwhelm a broadly static Liberal Democrat voter base. Perry Barr was rather similar - the Liberal Democrat vote remained static, but the Labour vote jumped massively. Sheldon was a little different, as it witnessed a 12% swing, not enough to unseat the deputy leader, but sufficient to halve his majority.

Another intriguing example of a possible demographic shift came in an unusual place - the Tory fortress of Sutton Coldfield, where doughty campaigner Rob Pocock has kept the red flag flying despite a tide of Tory blue around him. Against all the odds, he wiped 1000 votes from their massive majority, cutting it to a merely substantial 746. Amazingly, the 3000 votes he accrued would have secured him a council seat in most wards in the city, but were good enough only for second place in Sutton. I'm going out on a limb here and say that Labour will have a councillor in Sutton Vesey by the end of the next electoral cycle in 2016.

Across the city, Tory councillors were removed by a rise in the Labour vote and Liberal Democrat switchers. Billesley, Quinton, Brandwood, Harborne, Kings Norton all fell to this devastating combination - that also threatened Edgbaston and Bournville. Longbridge went Labour because of improved turnout of Labour voters, who have perhaps realised the importance of voting in local elections. This is indicative of an increasingly effective Labour operation across a number of wards and constituencies and the progress in Edgbaston builds on last year's tremendous campaign to return Gisela Stuart as MP. Taking Quinton and Harborne, with Edgbaston on a knife edge is a magnificent result.

The Tories held onto Erdington with an improved vote share as vote swung away from the Liberal Democrats in both directions, but in neighbouring Kingstanding, the young Gary Sambrook continues to make the Labour incumbents nervous and achieved a remarkable 19 point improval in vote share over 2007 and a 9% swing to the Tories, despite a contest marred by questionable leaflets on both sides - not least the rather crass leaflets from Labour having a go at Gary's generous proportions and his predilection for the council tea.

As for the minor parties, the BNP failed to run candidates in the vast majority of Birmingham wards, a far cry from their peak years in the middle of the last decade, only pulling a quarter of the vote that they attracted four years ago and a mere 1.8% city-wide vote share. The Green party mustered a reasonable slate, but can only realistically hope to be the environmental conscience to trouble the main parties in this city. Their performance was comparable with previous numbers, as they mustered some 12,000 votes for a 4.5% vote share.

These are historic times - the Liberal Democrats appear to be a failing force in Birmingham politics and - even with my analytical, apolitical head switched on - I can't see a way back for them over the course of this parliament, which will encompass a complete electoral cycle, with elections to come in 2012 and 2014 before the 2015 combined local and general election. They are too tightly enmeshed with the Tories and continue to harp on that they are merely working in the national interest, bravely sacrificing their councillor base for the good of the nation. Whether that is sustained when they take a similar beating next year and the party continues to reel from the loss of the Short money (paid to opposition parliamentary groups) and the increasing loss of the tithes paid to the party by councillors remains to be seen. Just as importantly, they are losing a generation of councillors unlikely to make a comeback and are also haemorrhaging activist supporters, the lifeblood of any party. Abandoning the coalition isn't an option for them at the moment - a general election would see them wiped out as a political force for a generation or more - and defenestrating Nick Clegg seems pointless at the moment.

In the early hours of Friday, I was with a small group of councillors in the Labour Group office in the Council House in Birmingham. We were cheerfully - far too cheerfully for 5am - applying coloured stickers to a wall map showing the 40 Birmingham electoral wards to indicate the political colour of the councillors. We ran out of red, but had plenty of yellows left unused.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Challenge of Leadership

After last Thursday's stunning Labour success at the polls, I'm told that there may be a few clouds gathering, in the shape of freshly-minted councillors Tony Kennedy (Sparkbrook) and John Clancy (Quinton), who are rumoured to be challenging Albert Bore and Ian Ward for leadership of the Labour group.

That didn't take long.

Lib Dem catching the bullets for the Tories

With the sure-footedness of a greased fish on an ice rink, Clegg leaps to the defence of the NHS and puts his party squarely between the Conservatives and the combined ranks of the health professionals and the general public - who are waking up to the meaning of the Tory plans for the destruction of the NHS.

Even as he points out the problems inherent in the Tory plans - following on from a Liberal Democrat conference resolution - the Tories are coming out in defence. John Redwood was smoothly sliding a stiletto between the DPM's shoulder blades this morning on the Today programme, silkily pointing out that when the programme was first put forward, Clegg, Burstow, Cable and Alexander all signed off on it, so it is a bit rich for them to complain now. He is, of course, spot on. Either the Liberal Democrats were asleep when they agreed to it - always a possibility - or they are now trying to curry favour with a public that has fallen spectacularly out of love with Nick and his gang.

The effect is that the Tories have shifted the focus onto the Liberal Democrats rather than the detail of the proposals, leaving the Liberal Democrats yet again providing human shields for the coalition leaders. Genius.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A few predictions

I've stayed clear of predicting specifics in local elections, but I thought I'd break tradition this time round. As it currently stands, Birmingham council is made up of 45 Tories, 41 Labour, 31 Liberal Democrats and 3 Respect councillors. It is elected by thirds and we are in the second year of the cycle, with councillors elected in 2007 retiring, giving us 40 wards to play with. Some of them are rock solid safe - Labour isn't hoping for a surprise victory in any of the Tory Sutton Coldfield wards, much as it may disappoint the doughty fighters in that CLP, but I suspect that we are likely to make solid gains this year. It is mathematically possible for Labour to take the seats required to regain control of the City Council this year, but rather unlikely, unless the Regressive Partnership electoral base melts down.

The national polls for the coalition partners aren't brilliant - although YouGov shows a slight revival in Liberal Democrat fortunes, with a high of 12% and the Tories holding firm on a creditable 36% against a solid Labour lead of 41% - but this isn't necessarily relevant to a local election, although voters usually use these elections to give a kicking to the parties in national government. It is very hard to match that across to local performance - Labour voters have typically been more reluctant to come out in local elections, while the Liberal Democrats have been highly efficient in mobilising their supporters to get out the vote.

So, what do I predict for May 5th?

I think we'll see 9 seats change hands to Labour - Hodge Hill, Springfield and Moseley from the Lib Dems (outside chances are Perry Barr and my own home ward of Acocks Green, in both of which I expect Labour to run them very close). Then we can perm some from a selection of Brandwood, Kings Norton, Quinton, Longbridge, Billesley, Weoley, Bournville and Northfield. I'm also expecting Hall Green to fall to the Tories from the Liberal Democrats. That should leave us with 3 Respect, 27 Liberal Democrats, 40 Tories and 50 Labour members.

Then we come back to retake the city in 2012 - albeit with a temporary Tory mayor.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Shameless Birmingham Lib Dems accuse Labour of scaremongering

"We need to look at Manchester, where Labour are cutting and closing down services, in Birmingham, we're keeping them open."

John Hemming, Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley
BBC Politics Show West Midlands, 1 May 2011.



"These cuts will have an undoubted impact on all frontline council services including care services to the vulnerable.... Rather than assist the country’s recovery by making savings to the public in a way that can protect local economies and the front line, the cuts are structured in such a way they will do the opposite."
Cllr Paul Tilsley, Liberal Democrat, Sheldon (part of Birmingham Yardley)

I have been passed a letter that is currently being hand-delivered to voters in Acocks Green in Birmingham from our Liberal Democrat council candidate and it has been signed off by another senior Liberal Democrat councillor - it may well be doing the rounds of Yardley, possibly even Paul Tilsley's Sheldon.

The letter makes the interesting claim that
"[Labour] deliberately exaggerate or invent statistics to frighten voters. So do not be fooled.... Labour are guilty of misleading you with false figures and blatant untruths about every attempt to reduce costs."
The sheer gall of any Liberal Democrat accusing any other party of misleading people astounds me. The local Liberal Democrat MP signed a pre-election promise to vote against any increase in university tuition fees, a promise that he unashamedly broke within months. The party campaigned against any hike in VAT or sudden package of cuts, but has acquiesced in them in government - selling out their voters for a few ministerial cars and seats on the government benches. Oddly, nowhere do they detail these false figures or untruths. I read on.
"All over the country, it is Labour councils that are closing facilities instead of tackling red tape and inefficiencies. Liberal Democrat councils are cutting costs and retaining services.

Here in Birmingham NO libraries, leisure centres, schools, swimming pools or public toilets are closing."
This councillor has swallowed the Eric Pickles-approved Kool Aid in industrial quantities. The whole point about the cuts to local authority funding this year is that they are not gradual, but sweeping cuts frontloaded into the first two years of the government and cuts that indisputably hurt deprived areas most. It is simply impossible for a council to make cuts of the level expected by tackling 'inefficiencies' - Birmingham has been working on 'efficiencies' for a number of years (if we ignore the appalling sums paid to consultants), but is still having to make thumping cuts (£300 million). Indeed, as Cllr Paul Tilsley agreed back in February
The local government settlement will take a major hit in this coming financial year and further, smaller, cuts in subsequent years. This front-loading means councils do not have the lead-in time necessary to re-engineer services on a lower-cost base and ease staff cuts without forced, expensive redundancies.
Curiously, this exposition of the facts fails to mention the cuts detailed in their own budget - the massive and damaging cuts (£118 million) to adult services, which will see 4000 adults with 'substantial needs' lose all services, as only those with critical need can hope to retain support from the local council. Acocks Green has a substantial elderly population, so can expect to be disproportionately affected by these cuts - choices made by the local Liberal Democrats. The minor fact that these choices were made without consultation and were subject to a judicial review, where the decision was declared unlawful is also missing from this letter. Here are some other inconvenient facts.
The four people, who cannot be named for legal reasons, include an elderly woman with severe learning difficulties who receives 24-hour care in a home paid for by the council, and a 25-year-old man with a rare genetic disorder and severe learning disabilities who receives overnight respite care, also council-provided. Both would have been left without funded care.... The Council's actions would impact thousands of vulnerable people, and were described by disabled rights groups as "heartless" and "irresponsible", as well as illegal...
Libraries aren't closing - but they are having their opening hours reduced and staffing will be limited. Leisure Services is taking a 17% budget cut this year, heavy cuts are being made to Childrens' Services - a department already failing is facing a restructuring designed to save money. Youth services across the city are essentially being scrapped and replaced with a website (I kid you not). 7000 jobs are set to go, with huge knock-on effects across the Birmingham economy. But still, these Liberal Democrats bury their heads in the sand, ignoring the cuts that they voted for and try to deceive voters that nothing is happening, as Andy Howell wrote about weeks ago. We've already seen crime rise in the West Midlands police area and they have forcibly retired dozens of highly experienced officers to meet demands from the coalition government for cuts that affect our force deeper than most.

Back to the letter to undecided voters. 
"The truth is, Birmingham are investing in extra classrooms, a new central library, two new swimming pools, building 700 homes for rent and freezing council tax this year.

Nationally we have taken 1.1 million low paid out of tax, investing £23 million extra this year in Birmingham schools, increased pensions and relinked them to inflation."
By the way, those low paid will see their tax savings eaten up by inflation and the rise in VAT. The extra classrooms were originally funded under Labour because of a forthcoming bulge in the school-age group. The central library and the pools are funded by borrowing (anyone know if the funding black hole has been filled yet?) and the council tax freeze is funded by central government.
"These are the facts you will never read on a Labour leaflet or in the Birmingham Mail (owned by the Mirror group of newspapers."
It is perhaps a mark of the desperation that is affecting the Liberal Democrats that they use an election leaflet to sling mud at the local press, unaware that the Birmingham Post and Mail tend to attack whoever is in power (Labour got the short end of the stick in the early part of the last decade and I'm sure they will get it again once they regain power over the next few years). To suggest that they are biased in favour of Labour is laughable.

Having opened with a warning about Labour misleading with false figures and blatant untruths, the letter concludes with a blatant untruth of its own.
'Fact A Labour Council will increase your Council Tax by Twice the rate of Inflation'
I'm pretty sure that this is not part of Labour's plan for Birmingham this year. I'd like to see the evidence to suggest that it is. Or is this just deliberate exaggeration to frighten voters? How does this compare with the views espoused by Cllr Tilsley back in February? Which Liberal Democrat is actually telling the truth or are they just desperately trying to claw back votes? Answers on a postcard to the usual address, please.

If you want a fact pulled out of thin air - how about that Liberal Democrat metropolitan councils will cost you 13% more than a no-overall control one like Birmingham and 11.9% more than a Labour council? Check out the figures from the House of Commons Library, referenced by Birmingham University's Chris Game, a fact conveniently ignored by this letter (which is relying on historical statistics irrelevant to the current situation and without reference to the funding regime at the time).

Acocks Green is a tough one for Labour to win this year - we've a huge majority to overturn, but I really hope that the voters aren't fooled by this last ditch pile of rubbish and see it for what it is. Believe me, this is one that the Liberal Democrats deserve to lose.