On what was a fairly mixed but still relatively drama-free day of local election results for Labour in the second city there are a couple of contests that really stand out.
The Greens winning comfortably in Druids Heath to get their first ever councillor in Birmingham was of course the one that has generated the most headlines, but the results in Acocks Green and Harborne are also noteworthy as in both cases these two member wards had successful candidates from two parties.
I won’t dwell too much on Acocks Green but the 700+ vote gap between John O’Shea and Fiona Williams that allowed the Liberal Democrat Roger Harmer in is on the face of it highly unusual. Hopefully at some stage we will get an explanation, although clearly the two sitting councillors being re-elected, regardless of their party affiliation, may go some way in that regard.
I will concentrate here on Harborne, where one of the protagonists was none other than Sundip Meghani, a figure of some notoriety for those familiar with goings-on in Labour politics in the South of the city. He was beaten by both of the Tory candidates and thus finished fourth, nearly 600 votes behind sitting councillor Jayne Francis, the one sitting councillor standing in the ward. The other successful candidate was the Tory Peter Fowler, who has held elected office elsewhere in the region but I believe has not stood in Birmingham before. He beat Meghani by nearly 500 votes.
It would be remiss to not begin with the tortuous process that led MeghanI being the second Labour candidate in the first place. It took an oft-reported three attempts (and a further meeting that had to be cancelled at the last minute following an NEC intervention across the city) after numerous irregularities were alleged. These have, to the best of my knowledge and that of my sources in the ward, not been disproven. A huge amount of avoidable political and PR damage was done which could have been avoided if the rulebook had just been stuck to rigorously.
And while Meghani won a comfortable majority at the third and final run of the shortlisting and selection meeting on December 13th 2017 when all the candidates were given access to the membership list that he had somehow managed to get his hands on before the second attempt, I’m told that most of the people who voted for him were then conspicuous by their absence during the campaign.
So what other factors may have come in play?
One of course does notice the fact that the two white candidates standing for the major parties have been elected and the two Asian candidates have not. However Akaal Sidhu is less than 150 votes behind his counterpart Fowler, which is a pretty normal gap between two candidates of the same party (see the Acocks Green result for the Lib Dems), but Meghani is nearly 600 behind Francis and over 300 behind Sidhu. Clearly something else was going on.
Speaking to Labour members in the ward they tell me that the Tories hammered the ward with literature and it was one of their main priorities across the city. Sidhu and Fowler appeared all over the place and clearly did the groundwork.
Labour’s first campaign leaflet (which appeared very quickly after the first disputed selection meeting) made no mention of the inclusion of the ward of the Welsh House Farm estate, which has been moved over from Quinton. Considering this is the most deprived part of what is in places a pretty affluent ward, this was a huge miscalculation almost designed to be a kick in the teeth. An incumbent with a pretty strong track record of being a conscientious councillor (which Francis has) can get away with something like that. A new candidate probably less so.
A look through Meghani’s Twitter account also provides some clues.
What’s interesting going through it as the weeks go by is that at no stage does he ever really talk about or engage with the key local issues with any specifics. If there is any commentary it invariably takes the form of generality, which is very surprising in a CLP like Edgbaston that I’m told focuses relentlessly on local matters. And the embarrassing hashtag #LoveHarborne comes across as painfully insincere.
This one in particular is really embarrassing. Pretty much every week of the campaign Meghani announces a guest, uniformly on the hard right of the party, from outside of the CLP. So he cannot really talk about “outside help” without looking like a massive hypocrite.
The other note-worthy theme, repeated to the point of cliché, is his invocation to voters to “reject the Tory hard-Brexit austerity agenda”. This mantra, I can only assume, is a tactic designed to appeal to the narrowly remain-voting electorate in the Edgbaston constituency. If so it is incredibly clumsy.
Brexit played no role in the local elections in Birmingham and to use the rejection of it as a tactic to win votes betrays a huge misunderstanding of the electorate – and is in fact hugely patronising. There is nothing that Meghani could do to stop the “Tory hard-Brexit austerity agenda” inside the council chamber and that isn’t what he is being elected to do anyway. The idea that voters in places like Welsh House Farm will respond to something like that is just silly, and a bizarrely rookie error from someone who stood a number of times for various types of elected office in Leicester.
Hopefully lessons will be learnt for 2022 and a repeat avoided. There is no reason why wards like Harborne shouldn’t be returning two Labour candidates – as Preet Gill’s thumping majority across the whole constituency in 2017 showed, there is a massive Labour vote in the area. The basics need to be got right and roots sunk in the local communities, especially Welsh House Farm, starting now. It is impossible to know if an alternative candidate to Meghani would have won – but either way things need to be done very differently next time.