What does the New Politics mean for the choice of a new Birmingham City Council Leader

Many of you might have missed it but there are a series of events going on around the country celebrating and debating local democracy. In Birmingham we have three fascinating events – with the highlight for me today with Simon Parker, Director of the New Local Government Network talking about his new book ‘Taking Power Back. I am not sure if any of these events are full but worth looking on this link – but act quickly.

So it is timely that Sir Albert Bore’s resignation falls in this week as really the Labour party – who control the choice of his successor will have to react to the new politics. What do I mean by new politics – well partly it is the upsurge in involvement in politics in the labour party (and prior to that in the Scottish Referendum) but also a sea change in communications in politics that started with the Arab Spring involving the use of social media. Yes it is great for us to learn from North Africa.

The upsurge in involvement through the £3 membership scheme in choosing Jeremy Corbyn in some way has to be reflected in the choice of the new leader. Constitutionally I believe it is the role of the Labour Councillors (70 of them I believe) to choose a new leader. However In this new Corbynista world it cannot be left to them alone. I wonder if this particular surge will continue – but it needs to be addressed as part of the selection process.

Perhaps more longer term is the need to engage with the wider public. We in Birmingham, foolishly I believe, voted against an elected Mayor – was it in 2012 – so we can’t have a plebiscite – but there must be much wider engagement – through social media of the candidates to argue their cases. This is over and above the usual hustings (although I am not sure they are usual in these circumstance – vapour filled rooms?).

This then makes me focus on where Sir Albert went wrong. He to my mind, and I have worked with him over a number of years – is an excellent strategist – seeing how the city needed to change – needed to modernise and he did make some hard but necessary decisions. He almost alone has set the course for the rejuvenation of our fine city. Yes there is still a lot to do but to my mind he is one of the foremost local politicians of our time. That said he missed a trick on communications. He was remote and relied on press releases and formal twitter channels up until close to the end to communicate. The new politics demands more than that. It doesn’t want dry statements – it wants to understand the politician. It is a harder world – but a more rewarding world for upcoming politicians.

It is useful to see how other Mayors/Leaders use . twitter – Albert as of today has 1332 followers. He recently started to tweet more often – belatedly realising the need communicate. If you however compare him with Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council – he has 4629 followers for an authority under half the size. Now this is not good either and you see real excellence – when you get to some of the country’s Mayors – George Ferguson Mayor of Bristol as an example has 35,700 followers – now that is good.

What is useful to look at however as well is how twitter is used. Sir Albert belatedly started tweeting more but rarely if ever got into conversations – he was following the broadcasting twitter model. This is a start but the real benefits to the individual politician happens when they engage and discuss.

I am copying a small selection from George Ferguson’s twitter output to indicate how politicians should use twitter (and other social media tools)

GeorgeF

You can see he is interacting. He is a person rather a statement. Now it is easier for a Mayor to do this than a leader but it is possible.

I almost did a blog post about the power of this as a method of engaging when Grand Central was opened. The BBC brought their red sofa up and interviewed the great and good – such as Albert and Digby Jones – but as well they interviewed Immy Kaur – and followed it up with a visit to Impact Hub Birmingham where she is a Director later in the day. Why did they choose her – well I can only postulate. She has new ideas and represents a new way of working but there are many people in this city with new ideas. What above all else she has – is great social media skills. She runs a smallish co-working space in Digbeth but she has 8780 twitter followers – across the globe. She is connected and not only through social media but through face to face travel as well. Now I haven’t asked her how she was picked for interview but I bet it had something to do with her networking and her reach. She is representative of a new sort of leadership.

Now Albert Bore really has understood the need to influence others. He today was due to speak in Brussels…and the EU has been a real friend to the city investing probably circa £1bn over the last 35 years.. One can see why he focussed on the EU. Albert  cut his teeth in politics during the Thatcher years where Europe helped enormously to by pass the Central Government cuts. In recent years it has got less important and whereas Manchester has swung its attention into influencing Whitehall Birmingham City Council hasn’t to such an extent. Manchester has managed to influence Whitehall and we haven’t. Richard Leese and his entourage have engaged with the devil. So its is not just  about social media but about where one sees power and the necessary comprises to influence that power.

Sorry for this rambling – but where does it leave us with the choice of his successor. I would suggest the process needs to be opened up using real dialogue on social media where ever possible but also importantly we as a city need to choose a communicator. Someone who understands the need to engage with people over social media and also face to face. Someone who can be credible in and out of the city. This might mean skipping a generation. Looking at some of the Councillors mentioned as possible contenders – and in a crude analysis of their twitter performance.

  • Brigid Jones has almost 2800 followers, has tweeted 3,800 times and has a blog
  • Ian Ward has 130 followers and 13 tweets
  • Lisa Trickett has 1,100 followers and has tweeted 870 times
  • James Mckay has 1,865 followers and has tweeted 2863 times
  • John Clancy has 1034 followers and has tweeted 3744 times

Now there are no real stars there (and this is far from a comprehensive list of contenders) but some are obviously more engaged than others. This is crude stuff and should not be the sole judge of how good a communicator the Councillor is – and of course how clear their vision is. Decisions on leaders need to take into account a number of factors but increasingly the ability to communicate over the heads of the machine is becoming more and more important.

So it is interesting times for the city and I hope that we get through whatever process (hopefully a more engaged one than previously) – a real communicator; a leader who can engage and co-create our future city – as well as someone with the vision and skills of Sir Albert.

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4 comments

  1. Number of followers is not indicative of genuine two way engagement and it is naive to think @SirAllbertbore account is managed by him personally. It isn’t which may explain the broadcasting tone of this account’s tweets.

    The “new politics” will not emerge without a struggle, hence the debacle over public hustings we have encountered, and even now there is only one public hustings sanctioned, whilst the candidates have mostly, four out five, committed to attending our event at Impact Hub Birmingham on November 16 2015.

    Not sure the voters want to understand their politicians, in fact that would be very wearying as a pastime. But visibility accessibility honesty and sincerity would be a nice healthy shift.

    The relationship between the leader and Europe is one thing, but the next leader needs to have some dialogue with Whitehall too.

    Whoever handles the Bristol Mayor’s twitter account is a smart cookie, whether it is him or an amanuensis.

    let’s hope a new era is emerging but let’s not be deluded either.

    1. This post is a little unpolished and could do with a sharper focus. Yes it is unlikely that Albert does his own posts and that in it broadcast style is clearly not what we want. George Ferguson clearly does his own as he enters dialog and that is clearly a style that is far better. We do have politicians that do engage and that are more approachable than others and it is to be hoped that the select few who are going to choose Albert’s successor weigh this strongly in their deliberations. The danger is for any lack lustre successor is that eventually the West Midlands Mayor will over shadow them. Notwithstanding any short term commissioners who may be sent in shortly.

  2. […] have to improve communications. There is a very interesting piece by @UrbanPivot about the role of social media in political life and it is interesting to see how some of the #BrumLeader candidates are already using social media […]

  3. […] Pivot drew attention to this in his blog just the previous week. So it interesting to look at which of the candidates are on twitter now! And in my very simple […]

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