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Last Updated: Monday, 14 June, 2004, 03:45 GMT 04:45 UK
Bitter Birmingham battle
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Birmingham has always been a city good at doing new things. It's the place where the Victorian reformer Joseph Chamberlain invented slum clearance.

It's the place where the car became king with the grand city centre motorways of 30 years ago.

Ward signs
Wards from across Birmingham returned their ballot papers
And it's the place which this week won an international regeneration award for knocking them down again.

But after 20 years of dominating the city, would decidedly New Labour get the boot for being, well, just a little too old hat?

Birmingham was expected to be the hottest contest of the 2004 elections - and in the end it kept the weary on-lookers guessing until the end.

For the first time since 1982, the council's entire 120 members were up for re-election as boundaries had been completely redrawn.

Labour has been clinging on as the largest overall party - although it lost its majority last year. But in national terms, the city is a key part of Labour's self confidence.

And so its candidates went into the election proclaiming the city's metamorphosis from concrete sprawl to continental piazzas.

But both the Tories and Liberal Democrats believed they could squeeze Labour's vote on a host of issues.

And if Labour candidates weren't already nervous enough, the city's large ethnic minority population, including wards with high proportions of Muslim voters, were expected to have a thing or two to say about the war in Iraq.

No overall control

But events did not quite go that way. Labour held on as the largest party, but the council remains in No Overall Control - meaning it faces paralysis if the parties refuse to work together.

That may be difficult. The count itself was marred by sniping, allegations of irregularities among the 70,000 postal ballots and recounts.

Counting tables
As far as I am aware all of our candidates and party members have acted within the law
Labour leader Sir Albert Bore
Leading the complaints were the Liberal Democrats, saying that Labour party workers had been involved in improper handling of ballot papers in some predominantly Pakistani and Bangladeshi areas.

Former Liberal Democrat councillor Ayoub Khan was elected last year and expected to be returned in Aston ward. He was beaten into sixth place and, backed by party chiefs, announced he would be calling for a formal investigation.

"I want a formal investigation into what's happened," said Mr Khan.

"The postal vote system has kicked democracy here. I know of Asian families who feel they are pressured into voting a certain way because of family ties and village politics brought with them from the other side of the world.

"There will be a lot of people very surprised I lost."

'Tighten the law'

West Midlands Police said it had received complaints on postal voting but so far found no evidence to warrant a criminal investigation.

For his part, Labour leader Sir Albert Bore said that although the police had found no wrongdoing, he felt uncomfortable about how the rules. At best, he said, the law governing how candidates can handle ballots was vague.

"As far as I am aware all of our candidates and party members have acted within the law," said Sir Albert.

"I'm not comfortable with all of this. That's why I am urging the Prime Minister to look at postal voting to see how the law can be tightened up."

But without a doubt, Labour has scraped through in Birmingham.

It may have lost councillors, including three of its most senior members, but the party is delighted with a result which bucked the trend.

And although the Conservatives gained considerable ground in the city, it was not as much as the party had hoped.

Mike Whitby, leader of the Conservative group, said he had reservations about how the election had been managed in the city.

"I am concerned about transparency in postal voting but also about disenfranchisement of those who sought a postal vote and found it difficult to get one."

Dented but not down

Two factors may have helped Labour remain the largest party in Birmingham.

Firstly, the expected backlash from minority communities did not come in anything like the numbers expected.

So while the Liberal Democrats had targeted two key wards with large Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, the voters in fact returned six Labour councillors.

Secondly, Birmingham's turnout was much higher than expected - touching 50% in one ward - meaning Labour's expected losses were not as bad as predicted. What's more, that turnout neutralised the challenge from the far-right British National Party which has gained toeholds in other areas where Labour voters have stayed at home.

So although little has changed on the city's political map - this has been a very bitter contest indeed and sets the scene for the general election to come.



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