Thursday, 26 January 2012

2012 must be a year of change for Birmingham and Labour

2012 must be a year of change in Birmingham, the regional capital of the Midlands, the region in which I live. To give just two of many grim statistics: Birmingham’s unemployment rate is twice the national average and homelessness in the city has increased by 20 per cent in the past year. But we know the change we need won’t come from this Tory-led government or from an outdated city council structure. Change requires that the city seize the chance of a directly elected Mayor in May’s referendum and that the city votes Labour in the mayoral election, which is expected to be in November if the city votes “yes” in May.

Having addressed the Fabian Society in London in the morning, Ed Balls attended a campaign lunch hosted by Siôn Simon, Tom Watson and Khalid Mahmood on Saturday 14 January. Balls encouraged Birmingham to vote “yes” in May and told the diverse lunch crowd of 130, including myself, that Siôn Simon “has got a great contribution to make for the future”. The event took place in Marco Pierre White’s new restaurant in Birmingham’s city centre; the latest culinary attraction in a city that, as Simon noted in his short speech, was recently named by the New York Times as one of the world’s top 20 holiday destinations due to its dining scene.    

This success demonstrates our Birmingham’s potential, which Simon encouraged attendees on Saturday to celebrate and talk about. And it’s not just food that Birmingham does well. Most of the jewellery made in Britain originates from Birmingham. Birmingham has Europe’s second biggest Islamic finance centre. The majority of the world’s Punjabi music is produced and developed in Birmingham. Birmingham has the largest professional services sector outside of London in the country. Birmingham has Europe’s largest shopping centre – the Bullring.

Too few of these successes are known about outside of Birmingham or are championed by Brummies and Midlanders. They are indicative of an immense potential that the presently ineffectual governance structures in the city and the UK’s top-down, Westminister-centric politics has frustratingly proved unable to unlock. Birmingham urgently needs better than this. We need the democratic renewal of city-wide election of the city’s leader and the legitimacy that this renewal provides for powers and budgets to be devolved from Whitehall to Birmingham.

Simon has shown a keener understanding of this than anyone else. When he announced that he would stand down from parliament before the last general election, eliminating any possibility that his mayoral ambitions would have Labour resources diverted to fighting a by-election, he said: “After nine years in Parliament, it has become clear to me that the answers to Birmingham’s problems do not lie in Westminster and Whitehall. We cannot leave our future to London. They have not looked after our past.”

The brighter future that Birmingham must aspire to can only be built by our city itself,the people and communities that form it and the wider Midlands region. The government should be true to their professed instinct for localism and allow Brummies to do this. I’ve been inspired by Simon’s writing on what it means to be a Brummie and impressed by how he has led the debate on what powers and budgets the government should devolve to the city under a mayoral administration.       

The opening words of Simon’s contribution to last year’s book What Next for Labour were: “As well as demonstrating what central government can achieve towards Labour’s objectives, the last government demonstrated its limits.” What Simon is campaigning for isn’t just vital to Birmingham’s future. It’s about a future for the Labour Party based upon a genuinely reformed, co-operative and bottom-up state. One that moves Britain beyond one of the most centralised political systems in the western world and gives cities like Birmingham the tools to command their own futures. 

2012 must be both the year of change in Birmingham and the year in which Labour’s future is built through a new municipal socialism. Neither the Labour Party nor Birmingham can wait till a change of government in 2015 to create brighter futures. We must start now.  

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