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Council leadership battle: ‘I’m best man for the job’ says Waseem Zaffar

Ambitious local politician Waseem Zaffar has spoken out about why he wants to become the next leader of Birmingham City Council. If he succeeds, he will make history, becoming the city’s first political leader of colour, the first Asian and the first Muslim to hold the role.

It’s a prospect that he says he has barely contemplated yet as he gets busy persuading a small but influential electorate of his merits. His fate lies in the hands of 65 men and women, Labor councilors elected just last week to the city council. On Saturday, at a closed Labor party meeting, they get to vote on who they want to lead them, and so the city, into a challenging four years.

Also in the running is Liz Clements, councilor for Bournville and Cotteridge, whose pitch is set out here. Zaffar made his bid for the top job, he said, after becoming certain his ideas, ethos and style of leadership would provide ‘the change needed right now’.

Read more: Councilor outlines her bid to become Birmingham’s first woman leader this century

In doing so he has more than ruffled the feathers of existing leader Ian Ward, who described the move as ‘a breach of trust’. He also claimed Zaffar’s leadership bid, made formally on Monday, was ‘unexpected’.

That reaction was a surprise to Zaffar. “I told Ian Ward before the elections (held last Thursday) that I would not be serving in his Cabinet,” he revealed today.

“I made it very clear to him, in a face to face meeting, before the election, telling him the reasons why. I also told him in a face to face meeting of my intentions before submitting my application to be leader. I don’ t think it was unexpected.”

He also dismissed suggestions of disloyalty. “I have been a valuable member of Ian Ward’s team and have raised concerns privately, being very loyal to him publicly over many years. But now is time for a new approach.

“I have got a very different view of what leadership should be – for me it has to be fully inclusive, where 65 members (of the ruling Labor group) together are being heard and involved in the decision making process,” he said.

Conflicting claims are coming out of each camp about who has garnered the most support so far, with three days to go to the crucial vote. But insiders believe that Zaffar would not have put his political future on the line without a strong expectation of victory and guarantees of support.

So who is Waseem Zaffar and what is his offer to Birmingham Labor councillors, and the city? Currently holding the transport and environment portfolio on the city council, he has been a councilor since 2011, and is councilor for Lozells.

We spoke today as he returned from the school run, dropping off the elder of his three young children, who included a three-week-old newborn. He was a bit down-not about his campaign from him, but because he had watched his beloved Villa lose to Liverpool the night before at Villa Park.

Waseem Zaffar in Lozells, the area he represents on Birmingham City Council

“For me, I am about running a positive campaign. Whoever is elected will need to work with the entire council, and work together to create the best for this amazing city.

“The Commonwealth Games this summer would not be happening here without the hard work of Ian Ward, while Liz Clements has done a great job of holding me accountable (on transport and the environment) in her role as scrutiny chair for transport and sustainability.

“But I believe I offer an alternative type of leadership. I fervently believe the leader of any organization sets the tone and creates the environment where people thrive or not, and I hope to be that leader. I want a culture where anyone can speak honestly and openly and people can challenge the executive, and that challenge is something that is welcomed.

“I also want to democratize decision making. We need to give power to our local communities through their local councillors, organizations and residents, that is absolutely vital.”

In an email to councilors sent out with news of his candidacy, he spoke in heartwarming terms about his love for Birmingham, setting out a vision of a city embracing diversity. He tells his colleagues: “I love the fact that people of all faiths (and none) can live side by side, break fast together during Ramadan, share Easter eggs, exchange laddoos on Vaisakhi and celebrate Passover, all in the space of a few days.

“I love walking down to Villa Park on a Saturday afternoon with my eldest son. Just the walk gives me immense pride and excitement. It’s not just a game, it’s a major part of my identity. I love that people from all over the world have come and settled here and call it home.”

But, he later adds: “When I speak to young people from Kings Norton to Kingstanding, Alum Rock to Lozells, they tell me we’re not offering them enough opportunity or inspiration. In this super-diverse triumph of a city, the one thing our young people agree on is the lack of hope. And that fills me with shame. Our job as councilors is to do something about it.”

He urges councilors to back him, promising “a true team, of comrades and equals, working together, harnessing all the skills, expertise, wisdom and experience of every member of our Labor group and every citizen of the greatest city in the world.”

Zaffar has faced controversy and continues to be confronted with criticism on a daily basis, both personally and over the policies he champions. In 2016 he was involved in a school row that came to be known as ‘hijabgate’ over the wearing of a hijab by a young relative. It resulted in him resigning his cabinet role for equalities, returning 15 months later.

He also tried, and failed, to silence a vociferous critic on social media, ending up with a huge legal bill as a result. As the man who introduced anti-pollution measures in the city like the Clean Air Zone and Low Traffic Neighborhoods he has also been on the receiving end of abuse.

“The cultural change we are bringing about in transport and the environment has not been easy. It has been tough, really tough, and I have been thoroughly challenged and stood up for the policies made. I don’t think many councilors have had Tommy Robinson (right wing extremist) and his crew outside their house, intimidating their mother, their wife and kids,” he adds, referring to an incident in 2016.

“That had a huge impact on my health and wellbeing, and I could have walked away, but the love I have for Birmingham drives me on,” he said. He kept a union flag they draped across his house from him, and says he is proud of the ‘multiple identities’ he has, like so many of Birmingham’s residents.

It’s why he says he is determined to do more to create an environment where people ‘want to go into public life and support their community’, not be scared off from doing so. He also takes offense at what he refers to as ‘racist smears’ suggesting that he has the votes of fellow Pakistanis and Kashmiris among the Labor group ‘sewn up’.

“It’s nothing less than racism to believe a group of people who share some characteristics would blindly support someone who looked like them. That undermines the intellect and independence of people who are proud councilors of this city.

“I have had a very positive conversations with a lot of councilors from all backgrounds in our group. We need to develop more young leaders in this city – part of my role would be to build up a capable team of future city leaders and a strong cabinet to drive change.”

He added: “I am excited to work with the new group of councillors, who represent so much of our city’s diversity, including younger women, people from the LGBTQi community and experienced colleagues who all have so much to offer.

“I want to create a city where everyone is free to live their best life, irrespective of their faith, colour, sexual orientation, a tolerant and inclusive city where we live side by side.

“I also fundamentally believe that this role is not just about leading the Labor group, or the city council, but being a leader for the city. It is vital as leader to reach out and work in partnership with communities, businesses and residents to facilitate a positive way ahead.”

He says there would be more ‘scrutiny’ under his leadership, with extra resources to ensure full and fast independent scrutiny of the leadership. This would also extend to communities, he said. “I absolutely want our communities to tell us when we are doing good and when we are not. We need to get out on the streets, into churches and community halls, really listening to people and breaking bread with them, rather than sitting in the Council House and looking backwards.

Councilor Waseem Zaffar, who has led on transport and environment and now hopes to lead the city council
Councilor Waseem Zaffar, who has led on transport and environment and now hopes to lead the city council

“We also need to make residents feel we listen when they speak. It is not just about fulfilling a statutory duty to consult, but properly co-designing services with affected communities.”

For the next three days he says he will be “focussed on speaking to all 65 group members”. “I am aware others may be focussed elsewhere and on looking outside for support but my focus is on speaking with and listening to the Labor group.”

He says that if he loses, contrary to comments made elsewhere, he would continue to serve the community of Lozells, following his victory in last week’s elections. But he has his eyes set on victory.

“My ideas are about being inclusive, involving councilors across the city, and tackling the big issues on rubbish, housing and climate, so Birmingham can further improve on what is already a brilliant city. I am working hard to secure the mandate I need. “

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