Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Labour’s Deputy Leader in the House of Lords
The West Midlands has always been a key barometer of national opinion, and Labour’s outstanding success in the local elections last night promises well for the next general election.
Wins in Birmingham and Dudley have spearheaded our massive advance and in Sandwell, Labour took every seat going. We have also become the largest single party in Walsall. The party needed just 4 gains to take Birmingham, but finished with a 34 seat majority. Remarkably, the party has won its first ever seat in Sutton Coldfield.
Birmingham’s return to Labour control is particularly significant. It is one of the biggest local authorities in Europe with a budget of £4bn. Britain’s second city has taken a big blow over the recession with one of the highest unemployment rates and 51,000 people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. These are the fourth worst figures in the country behind Hull, Hartlepool and nearby Wolverhampton.
A long period of dismal control over Birmingham by a Tory/Lib Dem coalition and the demise in the past year of Advantage West Midlands, the highly effective regional development agency, has robbed it of much needed leverage. But Labour has produced a highly imaginative vision of how it wants to take the city forward. A key emphasis will be on increasing employment through new economic growth zones and as a hub for advanced motor manufacturing and low carbon engineering.
Labour leader Sir Albert Bore said he would go about the business of governing Birmingham very differently. Housing is at the heart of our manifesto. The city will need to build about 70,000 homes for rent or buy by the mid-2020s to meet projected population growth. Already over 26,000 people are on the Council’s waiting list, with homelessness on the rise.
An interesting part of Labour’s offer to the electorate has been to promote health and well being. This very much chimed with Ed Miliband’s promise that Labour councils would act as the last line of defence against the fragmentation of the NHS, following the recent passing of Andrew Lansley’s Health Act.
The elections take place alongside the enforced mayoral referendum in both Coventry and Birmingham. Coventry rejected the proposal as did Nottingham and Manchester. Birmingham votes will be counted this afternoon and the result announced later today. In the last decade, the City has been pretty uninterested in elected Mayors and early signs at the polling stations didn’t show much change.
It looks like the voters have resented having the elected mayors referendum forced on them. There is a broader lesson, here, to the Coalition Government. Signs are that Tory MPs will be very wary of further tinkering with the constitution and Lords reform may well be heading for the long grass.