2013 local elections, Chris Game, county council elections, independents, local coalitions, local democracy, Local Government, minority administrations, No Overall Control, party alliances, unitary council elections
In May 2010 David Cameron and Nick Clegg took just five days to form their coalition government. By contrast, starting just a month later, the Belgians took a year and a half to form theirs. English local government falls between the two.
It’s a fortnight now since the national media completed their coverage of the local elections. They’d added up the seats won and lost by the various parties, calculated the national vote share they’d have received if the elections had been held in different parts of the country, and how many seats they’d have won in a 2015 General Election – and they left as unfinished, and apparently inconsequential, business the small matter of who would govern for the next four years the 13 county and unitary councils they conveniently lumped together in their tables as ‘NOC’ (No Overall Control). Today, though we’re speeding along by Belgian standards, in many of the 13 cases most of us still don’t know.
The reasons are various. Local party leaders are more vulnerable to losing their own seats than their national counterparts, and anyway leaders have to be re-elected or deposed at party meetings. More parties may be at least potentially involved, plus variegated independents. But above all, however comprehensive and decisive may have been the informal inter-party negotiations, any agreements can only be officially implemented at Annual Council Meetings – which, in most of the affected councils, will take place only over the coming week or so.
This blog, therefore, is an iffy, but hopefully not too misleading, ‘runners and riders’ guide to the 13 arithmetically hung county and unitary councils in which no single party has more than 50% of the seats: how they came to be that way, and what could (but very possibly may not) happen to them in the near future.
First, the counties, in alphabetical order. CAMBRIDGESHIRE, along with Lincolnshire, Norfolk, and to a lesser extent East Sussex, was one of the previously staunchly Conservative counties that became hung largely as a result of being UKIPped. As the map shows, this was a much patchier experience than was suggested by some commentators at the time – with 7 of the 27 counties still having no UKIP councillors at all and only 4, all in the south and east, having more than 10.
Source: BBC News
The Conservative leader, Nick Clarke, was one of those who lost his seat to UKIP, and the party’s remaining 32 seats leave them well short of a majority. The new leader’s preference would be to go it alone as a minority administration, but the leader of the 4-strong Independent group quickly ruled out ‘propping up the Tories’, and it could easily be defeated at the Annual Meeting on May 21st. UKIP, besides hoping for some Conservative defections, are generally in favour of ‘opening up’ council decision-making as widely as possible, and their leader, Peter Reeve, councillor for UKIP-governed Ramsey town on both the county and Huntingdonshire district councils, has mooted a return to a committee system, perhaps via an Independent-led non-Conservative rainbow coalition.
In CUMBRIA, previously run by a Con/Lab/Independent coalition, the elections effectively reversed the standings of the Conservatives and Labour, with the latter regaining their customary position as largest party, and the slightly strengthened Lib Dems in the role of potential kingmakers. Having elected a new leader, Jonathan Stephenson, they opted for a coalition with Labour, deputy leadership of the council, and 4 seats in a 10-member cabinet.
EAST SUSSEX is a much smaller council than Cambridgeshire, but proportionately the party arithmetic is broadly similar. Here, though, the other parties seem readier to accept a Conservative minority administration, and, as in Cambridgeshire, although a Conservative-UKIP deal could have produced a majority, none appears to have been seriously pursued.
GLOUCESTERSHIRE was a hung three-party council from 1981 to 2005, with Lib Dems generally the largest group. Then in 2009 the Conservatives suddenly took 42 of the former 63 council seats, leaving all other parties in their wake. The reduction of 10 seats, accompanying boundary changes, and the prospect of at least some recovery by Labour and possibly the Lib Dems led close observers to predict a return to NOC, and they were right. The Conservatives, though, will continue in office as a minority administration, leaving the Lib Dems as the main opposition party, miffed reportedly at a suspected Con-Lab deal over Scrutiny Management and other committee chairs.
Meanwhile, the county’s badgers, temporarily reprieved last autumn from the Government’s planned cull, seem to have lobbied with some effect in the elections, the new council voting by 25 to 20 with 7 abstentions to oppose the cull, now due to start in June.
In LANCASHIRE Labour either controlled the council or were the largest party from 1981 until 2009, and were hoping to regain majority control in one go. Sensing a lifeline, the Conservatives have been keen to talk with anyone who might be interested in forming what would presumably be an anti-Labour coalition. They, however, would need both the Lib Dems and at least two of the three Independents, whereas Labour, who have made it clear that they won’t do any kind of business with the Conservatives, could have a working majority with the Lib Dems alone.
LINCOLNSHIRE, with 40 years of virtually unbroken Conservative control, is unused to coalition politics, but the party’s leadership reacted quickly to the loss of nearly half its seats by putting together a Con/LD/Independent coalition and managing to split the Lincolnshire Independents group as a bonus. The LIs are, or at least seemed, a more coherent bunch than those on some councils – their website proclaiming them “a growing force in local democracy”, dismissive of those who “waste time on party politics”. But it seems the message wasn’t unanimously shared, because three of them have broken away and joined the coalition, one with a seat in the cabinet, and there are rumours that others may follow them into what is still a group-with-no-name.
Across The Wash, in equally traditionally Conservative NORFOLK, life is considerably more fraught. At a full council meeting earlier this week, the re-elected Conservative leader, Bill Borrett, apparently thought he had an agreement with the Lib Dems at least to abstain in any vote and thereby enable him to head a minority Conservative administration. He hadn’t, and nor was he able to nail down a more explicit coalition agreement with the Lib Dems involving some key specified posts, including two cabinet places, two committee chairs and the vice-chairmanship of the council.
It’s not entirely clear (to me, anyway) whether the stumbling block is one of these posts, or fundamental policy differences between the two parties over, inter alia, the Kings Lynn energy-from-waste incinerator on which Eric Pickles is due to rule later in the summer, or possibly Borrett’s personal position as leader. A non-Conservative rainbow coalition could just produce a majority, but it would require the improbable participation of all opposition parties, including UKIP – the leading opposition group, thanks to a single-vote victory over Labour in Thetford West. At least until an Extraordinary Council Meeting on May 24th, therefore, the running of the Council is, as the phrase goes, in the hands of officers.
Before the Conservatives swept into power in 2005, OXFORDSHIRE had been a hung council for 20 years. Labour’s comeback was limited, and, on a now a significantly smaller council, the Conservatives finished within one seat of retaining their overall majority – a position they’ve restored thanks to a CIA: a Conservative/Independent Alliance probably less alarming than it initially sounds. No cabinet seats are involved, but three of the four Independents have agreed to work with a Conservative minority administration in what sounds like the kind of ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement that many of us thought was as far as Cameron and Clegg would be prepared to go, and indeed to which they may still, before 2015, conceivably turn.
In WARWICKSHIRE Labour have never had majority control, but, having regularly been the largest party and in the recent past run the council for ten years as a minority administration, they had hopes of regaining this position. They didn’t, and the most likely outcome seems to be a Conservative minority administration, headed by the party’s new leader, Izzy Seccombe, with Labour holding all or most of the Scrutiny chairs. Arithmetically, a Lab/LD/Green coalition could have produced a majority, but Labour members, it seems, were never sufficiently interested.
Now to the four hung unitary councils. In BRISTOL Labour regained its position as largest single party and has agreed that two of its members should join Mayor George Ferguson’s all-party cabinet, which will now comprise 2 Labour members, 2 Lib Dems, I Conservative, and I Green. If that sounds straightforward, it most certainly wasn’t. Last November a similar proposal, though supported by Labour councillors, was overruled by the local party and eventually by the National Executive, and had cost the group its leader, Peter Hammond. It seems a sensible decision, but it would be surprising if that sentiment were shared universally within Labour circles.
In CORNWALL, as in Lincolnshire, some candidates continue running around long after the electoral music has stopped. Here, one of the elected Conservative members defected after 10 days to the Independents, bringing the latter group up to parity with the Lib Dems. This may, though, prove less crucial than it sounds, as both the Lib Dems and Independents were already in discussions over a jointly-led all- or multi-party rainbow alliance that could be presented to the public as a ‘Partnership for Cornwall’.
The ISLE OF WIGHT was once a Lib Dem showcase, controlled by the party either as a majority or in coalition for 16 years until 2005. It seems like history now, though, and this year’s election was largely about the exchange of seats between the Conservatives and Independents – the latter at least slightly helped by Labour and UKIP not contesting every seat that they might have done. The Island Independents, led by Ian Stephens, one of the possible beneficiaries of these arrangements, took over as easily the largest group, and will run the council as a minority administration – for the first time since 1973-77.
As a county council, NORTHUMBERLAND was invariably Labour-dominated and for long periods Labour-controlled. As a unitary it has been run by a Lib Dem minority – a state of affairs brought abruptly to an end in Labour’s electoral clean sweep of the north-east. As once more comfortably the largest party, Labour look likely to form a minority administration with some form of support from the three Independents – though, with one of the three being an ex-Labour councillor and the other two ex-Conservatives, discussions may not have been entirely plain sailing.]
Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.