COVENTRY City Council leader Ann Lucas is to face a leadership contest next week in which rebels in her own party are mobilising a co-ordinated campaign to oust her, we can exclusively reveal.
Supporters of the rebellion among Labour councillors told the Coventry Observer they and much of the Coventry public have grown increasingly alienated by Coun Lucas’s ‘autocratic’, ‘dogmatic’ and ‘undemocratic’ style of leadership.
We have learned the councillors seeking to stage a coup have now formalised their expected leadership challenge, which is widely expected to be close in a secret ballot, by submitting nominations to Labour group chiefs.
Former council deputy leader George Duggins, who was unavailable for comment, has submitted his nomination form to stand against her to become council leader, and councillor Jim O’Boyle is seeking to become deputy council leader.
Both were removed from top cabinet positions three years ago when Coun Lucas – alongside her then deputy, the late Phil Townshend – successfully pulled off a coup against former leader, councillor John Mutton.
We understand that also standing for deputy leader, having submitted their nomination forms, are staunch Lucas loyalist councillor Rachel Lancaster; and councillor Abdul Khan. The latter is Mr Townshend’s former business partner who Coun Lucas selected unopposed to become her new deputy council leader after Mr Townshend’s death in October last year.
At its worst, rebels claim Coun Lucas’s dogmatic and aggressive leadership style has seen Labour group and local party colleagues being left out of key discussions and decisions. Examples given include the detailed proposals for operations for a deeply controversial West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) headed by an elected mayor, a system rejected by Coventry voters by two-to-one in a referendum in 2012.
The rebels also believe the council under Coun Lucas has not done enough to challenge the Conservatives in government over schools’ policy including ‘free schools’ and academies, and over cuts to local authorities.
Backers for the leadership challenge who have turned against Coun Lucas also accuse her of misleading Coventry voters and taxpayers. It is understood those seeking to oust her will include in their manifestos a need from more truth and transparency with the public.
Some told us she has particularly failed to present a full picture to the public on matters including the Coventry City Football Club/Ricoh row, and, just last week, the quiet appointment of a new acting chief executive to cover for the £175,000-salaried Martin Reeves, when he is diverted onto work for the emerging WMCA – both stories revealed by this newspaper.
Opponents – who do not wish to be named – made comparisons between Coventry council’s first female council leader Lucas and the UK’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, insofar as both came to power pledging a more inclusive style (‘harmony’ in Mrs Thatcher’s case), but in many instances their hardline stance caused more division.
A secret ballot of the council’s divided Labour group which will decide who becomes leader and deputy leader will take place on May 6 – the day after council elections in all 18 city wards.
Coun Duggins came within four votes of ousting Coun Lucas last year, when on votes cast she won by 23 to 17, which she herself described as a ‘points victory, not a knock-out’.
The vote is expected to be decided by which of the two camps can sway potentially key floating voters onto their side.
The vote will also be influenced by how many candidates expected to vote for Coun Lucas or Coun Duggins respectively are returned as Labour councillors by Coventrians at the ballot box.
Wards where voting is forecast to be close again this year include Bablake, Cheylesmore, Westwood and Woodlands.
Rebels in Coventry Labour party, including in the Sherbourne ward, have been angered by what they say has been a bypassing of local party democracy, and ‘stitch-ups’, while Coun Lucas has been leader.
They accuse unelected regional party officials, who they claim are favourable to Coun Lucas, of parachuting in some Lucas loyalists as candidates to fight the elections on May 5, including Lynnette Kelly in Sherbourne, where local party members were ultimately denied the opportunity to select their own candidate.
But it is believed other wards have candidates who are certain to vote against Coun Lucas.
Coun Lucas will continue her claim that Coventry is on the up, and will argue it has strong, effective leadership.
She and her cabinet members have long claimed Coventry is on the road to economic ‘transformation’, having attracted tens of millions of pounds of European and government investment to lay the ground to attract more businesses to the city centre; that there are more people in jobs; and that the thriving universities are creating a more vibrant, cosmopolitan and dynamic city.
But rebels speaking with the Observer pointed to the reality not matching the rhetoric.
For example, they point to the business district development Friargate at Coventry station – to which the council is moving staff to a new tower block – which is still yet to confirm a single private tenant after more than a decade of planning and pledges of ‘up to 15,000 jobs’.
They also point to successive failures of proposals to radically redevelop the city centre; and the failure of the Coventry and Warwickshire sub-region’s key priority economic hope, the Gateway jobs scheme around Coventry airport – where Jaguar Land Rover now partly want to expand into, after the government blocked it on green belt grounds.
It is conventional and expected that no Labour group member should discuss leadership challenges, or their secret nominations, with the media.
UPDATE (Weds April 27): Lucas loyalist Rachel Lancaster is not now standing for deputy. Sources are adamant she has withdrawn for tactical reasons, after Labour group members claimed they were informed she had submitted her nomination form.