While London has been hogging the attention of the media for the local elections on May 3rd let us remember that England’s second city, Birmingham, also has all it council seats up for election. It is England’s largest local authority – with over 30,000 employees it spends over £3 billion a year. Newcastle and Manchester (where the Conservatives currently have no seats) also have all their seats being contested. As does Leeds (where there are currently 58 Labour councillors to 19 Conservatives).
But Birmingham is the biggest prize.
The general election result last year was discouraging for the Conservatives and that reflected a trend over many years. While Sutton Coldfield is a safe Conservative seat, the other nine constituencies in the city are held by Labour. Seats that the Conservatives won in the Thatcher era – Edgbaston, Hall Green, Northfield, Selly Oak and Yardley – are now held by Labour often with big majorities.
In terms of local government Labour also starts out in a dominant position. They have 79 councillors with 29 Conservatives and 10 Lib Dems. While the Conservatives led the Council as recently as 2010 that was in coalition with the Lib Dems. It is true that Andy Street was elected the Mayor of the West Midlands last year. but he did not win a majority in Birmingham. His victory was secured by big majorities in Solihull, Walsall, and Dudley which more than offset his deficit in Birmingham (and Coventry, Sandwell and Wolverhampton).
On the other hand Labour will not be in a position to capitalise on Brexit. Birmingham voted very narrowly in favour of leaving the EU. So that will have surely included a significant chunk of Labour voters.
Then we have the matter of Labour’s dismal record running the city. Last year saw the bin strike in the city. Rubbish was piled high in the streets for months. The Labour council leader resigned after a motion of no confidence was passed by his colleagues. The whole crisis was handled in a weak and chaotic manner. In the end the Council gave in to the unions – after spending millions on agency staff to collect the rubbish.
That followed the “Trojan Horse” scandal where the Council was condemned for ignoring evidence of Islamic extremism.
Last month a Labour council candidate was deselected after an anti-semitic Facebook post.
The Council is in a financial mess – with overspending, Council Tax rises and poor services.
Cllr Robert Alden, the Conservative opposition leader, has written for us about the positive and energetic campaign that he and his colleagues are running.
So if local issues have anything to do with it, the Conservatives should be looking to make gains. That is encouraging in a way. But is also means that there is no excuse for losing seats. If the Conservatives can’t make gains in these circumstances it is hard to see what would prompt a revival for them in the city of Joseph Chamberlain.