New Sandwell leader on Boris' Tories, Tom Watson and bringing 'justice and fairness' to council

Yvonne Davies wants to face the issues at Sandwell Council dogged by scandal and in-fighting among members of its Labour group.

The new Sandwell Council leader Yvonne Davies outlines her vision for the future
The new Sandwell Council leader Yvonne Davies outlines her vision for the future

The leader of Sandwell Council has warned the borough “may not survive” if the Tories win the next general election.

And Councillor Yvonne Davies urged Tom Watson to get behind Jeremy Corbyn, warning Labour cannot win with “divided voices”.

Councillor Davies said she was concerned over Sandwell Council’s financial position, saying that youth provision and preventative services to help with homelessness and mental health were “crying out” for investment.

She raised doubts over Sandwell getting its “fair share” of funding under a Boris Johnson-led Tory administration, and claimed that she was terrified of the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on the borough.

Ms Davies became the council’s third leader in four months when she was elected to head the Labour-dominated authority in May.

She has vowed to focus on improving local services during her time as leader, but said the council’s progress would undoubtedly be influenced by which party was in power nationally, adding: “If the country doesn’t vote Labour in the next general election, I’m not sure we will survive another term.

Tom Watson with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

"Boris Johnson appears to have found the magic money tree, with money for police officers and prisons, but I’m not sure any funding will come to solidly Labour areas like Sandwell.

"We want to see successful adults rearing children who can cope with life’s complexities.

“To do that we need to invest in Sure Start, in children’s centres, in youth provision, family support, we need to invest in schools, in mental health services… these areas are screaming for more investment.”

She said that Sandwell had mitigated the impact of budget cuts on the authority by “taking the difficult decision” in the past to lay off staff.

“We have to manage our finances carefully and we certainly can’t afford things to go over budget,” she said, citing the borough’s Children’s Trust as a particular area of concern.

Langley councillor Ms Davies said Labour would not win a general election “if we have divided voices”, and accused new Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson of “basically accepting” a no-deal Brexit by refusing to work with Mr Corbyn.

And in a message to Labour deputy leader Mr Watson, who is West Bromwich East MP, she said: “Tom Watson is the deputy leader of the Labour Party and he should support the leader of the party to win the next general election.”

She attacked those who were critical of Labour, saying there was too much emphasis on the opposing wings of the party when members should be uniting to defeat the Conservatives and to fight Brexit.

'My mission to create more justice'

It’s been a long and arduous road to the top for Sandwell Council leader Yvonne Davies.

The 64-year-old has battled liver cancer and a lengthy suspension from the borough’s Labour group in a 12-year career in politics that now sees her holding a position she has never coveted.

After failing in two previous leadership contests she was elected by two votes to succeed Councillor Steve Trow in May, becoming the authority’s third Labour leader in four months.

Now she says she’s on a mission to bring “justice and fairness” to a borough that has spent years dogged by scandal and in-fighting among members of its Labour group.

“With the scandals that we have had... I felt that some people who were putting themselves forward were embroiled in it, for good or ill,” Ms Davies said, speaking in an interview with the Express & Star at Sandwell Council House in Oldbury.

She says of contenders Steve Eling, the former leader who has been suspended by Labour since January, and Councillor Ian Jones: “I didn’t want either of them.

“I knew that I could do a better job. I can bring a rigour and a focus which was about justice and fairness – which is something that I felt was needed in Sandwell.”

Former council leader Steve Eling

The reference to “scandal” will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the goings on in Sandwell since the publication of the Wragge report in 2016, which detailed allegations of dodgy deals involving council-owned land and the authority’s former deputy leader Mahboob Hussain.

Although no criminal charges were brought against Mr Hussain – who has always denied any wrongdoing – the political fallout was huge, with elected members dividing into warring camps as what Ms Davies describes as a “febrile atmosphere” took hold.

She says she was against the Wragge report in the first place, claiming there were “political motivations” against Mr Hussain in its publication and saying the issues would have been better addressed by the council’s standards process.

“The Wragge report was a red herring which failed to achieve anything,” she said. “It cost massive amounts of public money, and what was the result? That people should go to standards.

“People may well say ‘standards don’t have any teeth’ and you can argue for that, but that is the process. People should be arguing for the law to change, rather than trying to subvert the law because it doesn’t suit you.”

Former Sandwell Council deputy leader Mahboob Hussain, centre

In one of her first acts as leader Ms Davies has vowed to tighten up the standards process, with a “clearer separation” between the roles of officers and councillors.

She said: “Sometimes councillors do things that are wrong and they should face the sanctions that the law allows. I can’t change the past, but I’m going to ensure we have proper processes in place and that people can expect fair treatment.

“That does not mean people can do wrong and get away with it. They can’t and they won’t.

“I can guarantee we will do things in a fair way, which is about what’s in the best interests for everybody in Sandwell. There will not be favourites, and I don’t care what political party people are from.”

One of eight children born to a working class family in Denbigh, North Wales, Ms Davies describes her upbringing as “difficult”.

“Put simply, I had trouble understanding the world around me,” she says. She was a girl guide who loved attending church sermons, but reacted with fury whenever she believed she had been wronged in any way.

She hated school – “I was very badly behaved... some people will say I still am,” she says with a smile – and left early without any qualifications to work in a local factory.

Her father Thomas, a self-employed driver, was a life-long Tory.

“He believed everyone could get a job if they wanted one and that people who didn’t have one were lazy and feckless,” she recalls.

“I grew up believing he was God. I was probably 14 or 15 before I realised he wasn’t infallible and that he was quite capable of talking complete bloody nonsense.”

Ms Davies was married at 17 and had two sons by the age of 20, before deciding there must be more to life than “just being a mum”.

Seven O-levels and an A-level later and she got into Bangor University to study social policy, where she joined the student welfare office and became a volunteer at Bangor Citizens Advice Bureau.

It was there were she realised what she wanted to do with her life.

“I always liked helping others,” she said. “Somewhere along the way I developed what was almost a religious zeal to help people who were victims of circumstance.”

After working as an advice coordinator during the Towyn floods in 1990, she worked in social security law and as a welfare rights officer in Clwyd, before moving to Sandwell where she became the lead for anti-poverty and welfare rights.

Following a stint as chief executive of Birmingham CAB, Ms Davies – who had joined the Labour Party in the late 1980s – made the move into politics in 2007 after being persuaded to take the plunge by the late Darren Cooper and Councillor Bob Piper.

“I had never been overtly political, but I felt that becoming a councillor would allow me to directly help people in the community,” she said.

Ms Davies was elected in Hateley Heath in 2007 before moving across to Langley, where she now lives, in 2011.

She says she has never been one to toe the party line, an attitude which contributed to her being thrown out of a group meeting on one occasion before she was suspended in 2016 over claims she was trying to undermine the leadership.

“My telling the truth in the Labour group was wholly unpalatable for some,” she says. “But I didn’t care who I offended.”

In that year she briefly became leader, defeating Mr Eling but then controversially losing the position days later after it was re-run.

The then-Sandwell Council leader Steve Trow celebrating at the local election count in May before telling members of his plan to stand down

In her second stab at it she lost by 10 votes to Mr Trow in February, before edging home in May’s leadership contest after he had stood down.

Her first three months in the hot seat have seen the turbulence in Sandwell continue, with her deputy Syeda Khatun stepping down for personal reasons, and chief executive Jan Britton quitting.

Despite being a somewhat reluctant leader, Ms Davies is adamant that she will run the council her way – while hopefully changing a few perceptions about Sandwell. She said: “

I was diagnosed with cancer in October 2016, so I had enough on my plate dealing with having a kidney removed and what comes after that.

“Perhaps I will get used to the title, but I don’t like the pomp and circumstance that goes with it. I still go to the pub and the chemist, and get the bus.

“This council as a whole is not a hotbed of people filling their pockets through the public fund. The vast majority here care about having the best public services we can have. We do get things wrong, and when we do, we have to listen and do things differently in future.”

New Sandwell leader: 'Tom Watson is a very single-minded man'

“I didn’t have the strongest relationship with Tom Watson,” says Yvonne Davies, reflecting on her decision to move council wards eight years ago.

The Sandwell Council leader says clashes with Mr Watson led to her quitting Hateley Heath, which falls in his West Bromwich East constituency, and moving over to represent Langley, a ward in Warley.

She said she had been “quite uppity” over Mr Watson’s role in the MPs’ expenses scandal.

And the pair had also been at loggerheads over whether to cancel a St George’s Day parade over fears it would be hijacked by the BNP.

“He’s a very single-minded man,” she said of Mr Watson. “I felt it was in my best interests to move somewhere else. I’ve enjoyed it in Langley, although I don’t have any better relationship with Warley MP John Spellar if the truth be told.”

Ms Davies said she backs Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

Labour deputy leader and West Bromwich East MP Tom Watson

But she says her loyalty is based on rational argument – and “not in the blind, cult way”.

She added: “I’m not really sure what people’s problem with him is. I agree with most of what he says.”

She said the best chance for Labour is for everyone involved in the party get 100 per cent behind the leadership, especially with the prospect of a general election looking.

The councillor called on Labour supporters to cast aside notions of “right” and “left” for the good of the party, adding: “Frankly I don’t believe in right or left,” Ms Davies said. “I sat on the right of the party with [former leader] Darren Copper, now I’m considered ‘left’.

“Party leaders come and go and I’ve supported lots of them that I’ve not necessarily agreed with. The important thing is to get a Labour government.”

Ms Davies also praised the party’s “more thorough” disciplinary system brought in under Mr Corbyn’s watch, insisting that complaints against party members were no longer simply “brushed under the carpet”.

The issue came to the fore following a BBC documentary on allegations of anti-Semitism in Labour, which prompted Mr Watson to call for an independent disciplinary process.

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