I have an obsessive nature – not addictive, thank god – but definitely obsessive. Whenever I am reminded of 1976 classic Carrie the voices echo about my brain for days. I have spent hours researching Michigan J. Frog (the frog in the cartoon that only dances for one man until it drives him mad) Did you you know he had a name? I did, because I have thought about him about three times a day for the last ten or so years. That’s more than some people think about their god.
This obsessive nature means that I stay away from certain things, things that tickle my pleasure centres in that special way that be it in a dangerous life destroying way like gambling or hard drugs that could have me out doing unspeakable things and burning bridges, or smaller things, hobbies or small chunks of pop culture that could have me memorising league tables and waiting for Saturday match day.
I’ve never been bothered by football, but politics does it for me. The Venn diagram where ideals, manipulation, and power overlap, that flicks my switch. Like a 4D chess game crossed with a soap opera with a cast of the worst people in the world. Which is why I stay away, I dabble, much like the casual football fan I’ll follow the big matches but at a local level not so much. I’m just not prepared to put in the work of crushing banality that local politics is made up of.
So when I was asked to cover the hustings for the leader of Birmingham City Council I was hesitant. Normally I only get sent to things that either of the Jons don’t mind getting banned from. But I went. And it was as boring as I thought it would be. One of the things that’s clear is that despite being the being the biggest local authority in England, being its head affords you very little power. In fact it seems the whole machinery of the local council is powerless, with its committees, sub-committees, panels, boards and commissions, all layered on top of each other and threaded together like a cake made by a boring drunk spider.
So on a rainy Thursday evening I found myself at the CBSO. Looking around the room, I felt a bit out of place, my hair is a weird pink colour, but it wasn’t just that my hair was pink, it was that my hair had any colour at all. The crowd were made up of mostly middle aged white people. The people of colour I did spot were Labour councillors themselves so don’t count.
After a welcome and a namecheck for this website from Kevin Johnson the editor of the Chamberlain Files. The candidates introduced themselves with an opening statement and then took questions from the floor. The answers were of varying competence and obfuscation the cloud in the room being the Kerslake report.
The Kerslake report for the uninitiated in grey and beige hallways of local government, is a damning report from the last government in 2014 about the leadership in Birmingham. It was heavily critical of the council, pointing out its mishandling of finances, failure of child services, and disconnection from the local electorate. The government also handed a deadline with the report a deadline coming up rapidly. If the council doesn’t shape up in by the deadline we could have our council split into smaller authorities (which doesn’t look likely) or be taken over by government officials.
On top of that, just the day before an elected mayor for the whole of the West Midlands was announced, meaning that this position now looks something like the chief rat from The Muppet Show. Our winner may be scuttling the corridors of power while the big elected green frog has the real influence. (Did you know he had a name? It’s Rizzo the Rat)
The first contender John Clancy, John looks like a successful jacuzzi salesman and seemed to be the only person with innovative ideas and soundbites. Although his lack of facts and figures and cohesive vision makes me wonder if he has the political weight or nous to back them up or get them implemented.
Barry Henley clearly has the experience having balanced budgets on the same scale, he has the appearance of a burnt out headmaster and regularly reminds himself to modulate his voice so it isn’t a flat monotone. His focus was the Kerslake report and implementing an ‘strictly autocratic’ leadership policy that ‘devolves responsibility and accountability’. He got the most nods and polite agreements from the small crowd.
Third to speak was the heir apparent Ian Ward, deputy leader of the council, who looked has the strongest Brummie accent and looked at times like a bald budgie in a new wave tie. His main argument was that he’s already doing the job anyway so it would be only sensible to keep letting him. That’s a really dangerous line to walk, because of course the main thought in everyone’s mind is ‘why the hell haven’t you done any of this already?’.
And Penny Holbrook, in my mind played by Miranda Hart in a mid-range wig, has a vision, a vision to make Birmingham “the first city” she told everyone she was the only person to ‘keep the commissioners out of Birmingham’ of course with without telling anyone how she was going to do it.
Most of the answers were rehearsed and delivered with practised passion at best, to a room of mostly bored people trying to decipher the management speak and styrofoam filling peanuts that passes for actual information. The contenders were polite, and dull. The only thing to get a kicking was the Capita contract, each making reference to its huge cost and that the money being better spent elsewhere (Ian Ward, of course, adding the caveat that they would ‘have to look at the contracts’ — could he not have had a quick read in the last few years?)
Say what you want about Jeremy Corbyn, hell if you make it a big enough lie it might even be given a front page, but his promise to reform the Labour party with a massive mandate flopping around between his legs may not be such a bad thing — and he did make noises about sorting this state out too. Because if the state of the Labour party is a boring — poorly-attended — debate, for a position most of its members won’t get to vote for, about a job that may be taken from them in a couple of months and rendered nearly entirely moot in a couple of years, then the only way is up right?
But what would I know? I’ve got no frog in this fight. Hello my dolly, heelo my baby hello my ragtime giiiIIIIIRRRRRRlllll….