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Local elections – unlike boxing, they’re not over at the count

Local elections – unlike boxing, they’re not over at the count

🕔21.May 2018

For most of the national media, the year’s local elections were over, if not quite when the polls closed, then certainly when enough votes were counted to allow an announcement of which party had retained or gained control of the last council. Chris Game rounds up the impact of the results on councils around the West Midlands. 

Job done. Except, of course, that it wasn’t – because local elections are indeed not just about electing our own ward councillors, but about determining the political control, and thereby the future leadership and policies, of our councils.

And, whatever informal negotiations and deals, rumours and leaks there may have been over the days following the election, that isn’t officially resolved until the Annual Meeting of the Council – in Birmingham’s case tomorrow, Tuesday, 22nd May.

In Birmingham, the decisive election arithmetic – Labour 67 seats, Conservatives 25, Lib Dems 10, Greens 1 – means any Annual Meeting surprises will be, well, surprising. Indeed, the new administration can claim the backing of a majority (53.7%) of those voting on 3rd May, which certainly wasn’t always so during the party’s 19 years of ‘majority control’ to 2003.

In several years they benefited from what is the underlying purpose of our wildly non-proportional electoral system: to conjure one-party majorities wherever possible – if necessary out of minorities of votes – with whose majority being a distinctly secondary consideration.

Remember this time how Labour humiliatingly failed to capture the Conservative bastion of Wandsworth Council?  In fact, that ‘humiliation’ involved Labour winning a plurality of the vote (38.7%), for which it earned 19 councillors, while the Conservatives’ 38.3% rewarded them with 33 and an overall majority.

Less Labour’s humiliation, you’d think, than the electoral system’s – though, to be fairer than the system itself, the precise reverse happened in Plymouth, where Labour took control of the council with fewer votes than the Conservatives.  Then there’s Lewisham, where Labour’s single-seat Green opposition was removed, giving it 100% of councillors … on just 52% of the vote.

Even our arbitrary system, though, can’t magic overall seat majorities everywhere, so this time the BBC was forced to report the ‘result’ of 21 elections as ‘No overall control’.  And that’s how these interim numbers will remain, probably in perpetuity – loose ends too bothersome to tie up.

Which is this blog’s main aim: tying up a few loose ends, particularly concerning the West Midlands boroughs covered in my elections preview blog: Dudley, Walsall and Solihull.

DUDLEY, run for the past year by a minority Conservative administration supported by the then six UKIP councillors – the so-called Blue-kip arrangement – was bound to see changes.  But, with five of the UKIP seats being contested plus Dudley’s several really marginal wards, I suggested “only an idiot would attempt a prediction”.

Mine was a narrow overall Labour majority – and was wrong, but only by 170-odd votes.  The Conservatives won Belle Vale and held Wollaston & Stourbridge Town by about 140 votes each, plus ultra-marginal Upper Gornal & Woodsetton – held by Labour in 2016, but snatched now by just 32 votes by Conservative Chris Neale, who was quickly rewarded by a one-to-one with a relieved Prime Minister on her Friday victory tour.

Had any two of those seats or maybe Halesowen North, another narrow Conservative gain, gone the other way, the actual 35 – 35 tie would have become at least a 2-seat Labour plurality and given the party first go at taking control.

As the PM’s visit suggested, it was widely expected the Conservatives would continue in minority control, supported by the two non-Labour councillors – the sole UKIP survivor (in the metropolitan West Midlands, not just in Dudley) plus a Conservative-turned-Independent.

Last week it was confirmed – initially with the announcement that UKIP councillor Kerry Lewis has joined the Conservatives to give them the vital extra seat needed for the all-important majority”, and subsequently at Thursday’s Annual Meeting.

Which, turning pedant for a paragraph, I’d say may be effectively true, but not literally – since a majority on a 72-seat council is actually 37 councillors, not 36.

However, the Conservatives used their plurality to elect one of their number as Mayor and so can rely, if necessary, on the Mayoral casting vote.

WALSALL – there were manoeuvrings here too last week, but this time by the party emerging from the elections very much in second place.

In recent years it’s consistently been much harder for Labour to win overall control of the council than outside commentators sometimes suggest. I hope I’m not in that camp, and couldn’t see it happening this time, despite the party running the council as a minority administration with the Lib Dems and requiring ‘only’ three extra seats for an overall majority.

But nor had I anticipated Labour would lose three of the seats it had won with something to spare in 2016: Bloxwich East, Rushall-Shelfield, and Brownhills.  The Conservatives took the first two and technically retained Brownhills, with former UKIP member, Stephen Craddock, having previously joined the Conservative group.

With Short Heath also returning to the Tory fold following its UKIP dalliance, the election night arithmetic had the Conservatives with exactly half of the council’s 60 seats, Labour on 26, with two each for the Lib Dems and Independents.

So nearly over the threshold that even the local media pronounced that “the Conservatives have taken control of Walsall”.

There’s something in that ‘not counting chickens’ proverb, though.  For, reportedly, Labour group leader Sean Coughlin has secured the support of the two Independents – Paul and Chris Bott (Darlaston South) – and the two Lib Dems – Dan Barker (Short Heath) and Ian Shires (Willenhall North), the latter explaining the machinations with characteristic candour in his blog.

All of which, of course, still has to be confirmed at one of the more interesting Annual Meetings on Wednesday.

Shires, a cabinet member in the last Lab-Lib Dem joint administration, was never going to help the Conservatives over the line. But, incensed by their group leader Mike Bird’s attempts to snatch the mayoralty from Paul Bott – due to be installed on the convention of seniority – he took it upon himself to save the council from “spinning right back to the bad old days of the 1990s”.  Check out the blog (May 15th & 16th) – it’s good stuff!

SOLIHULL and the GREENS – the party’s co-leaders, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, were clear about the post-election message they wanted the media to communicate: that, with the near-elimination of UKIP councillors, the Greens are now “England’s fourth party” – which is fair enough, if technically contestable.

Their 40,000+ membership makes them already fourth largest in England, but in this month’s five published national polls published, they’re still behind UKIP in three and level – on 2 or 3% – in two.

That’s picky, though, particularly from someone writing from the kind of metropolitan area where, perhaps significantly for their future, the Greens had some of their most striking successes.

Though losing seats in several of their earlier breakthrough areas – five in Norwich, two in Oxford, and more locally Nuneaton & Bedworth – their 11 London seats and 18 in the metropolitan boroughs both constituted mini-records, and included winning or holding five seats in Lambeth, four in Richmond, plus, what might have been most importantly, two in Trafford.

Initially, these Trafford gains were naturally overshadowed by the Conservatives losing their 14-year majority control of the borough – with 29 seats to Labour’s 30, Lib Dems and Greens two each – and Conservative leader Sean Anstee unambiguously ruling out any coalition with a smaller party.

Eveidently the Lib Dems were the quicker off the mark, more organised, or possibly simply more attractive to Labour, because, as in Walsall, Trafford’s Lib Dems have reportedly done a deal with Labour.

Again, it’s not official until Wednesday’s Annual Meeting, but the two parties have announced a ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ with notably harder policy content than is sometimes the case.

That Trafford result, of course, leaves Solihull as the Conservatives’ only majority controlled metropolitan borough – with the Greens having strengthened their position as official opposition by gaining Castle Bromwich in one of these elections’ more remarkable results.

James Burn, group leader and last year’s Green Party candidate for West Midalnds mayor, retained his Chelmsley Wood seat with 78% of the vote, apparently the biggest majority ever recorded by any Green candidate.

Which was obviously good – though his 1,517 votes were only 183 more than he’d managed four years ago.  By comparison, his colleague, Cheryl Buxton-Sait, took Castle Bromwich from the Conservatives with 2,254 votes, or over eight times the total she’d managed at her first try two years ago – and that’s pretty sensational.

As, equally obviously, was Julien Pritchard’s election as Birmingham’s first Green councillor.

True, in one of the new single-member wards like Druids Heath (minus possessive apostrophe, as longstanding Files readers may recall) it’s somewhat easier for the candidate of a new or small party to break through the stranglehold of the larger parties than it was with three-member wards.

Even so, Cllr Pritchard unquestionably merits a place in the city’s thin but distinguished line of small and minority party history-makers: the then plain Liberal Paul Tilsley in hitherto Labour Aston in 1968; my much missed University of Birmingham colleague and later Lord Mayor, Michael Wilkes, as variously Social Democrat, Independent, and Liberal Democrat in Hall Green; the People’s Justice Party Muslims around the turn of the century; the Respect Party’s remarkable Salma Yaqoob in Sparkbrook; Rob Pocock in Sutton Vesey, and doubtless others I’ve overlooked.

In which case, we can at least try to make a better effort than the BBC and get the spelling of his name right.

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