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UKIP’s County Progress: patchy but perceptible

UKIP’s County Progress: patchy but perceptible

🕔03.Jun 2013

In May 2010 Cameron and Clegg took just five days to form their national coalition. By contrast, starting in June 2010, the Belgians took 18 months to form theirs. English local government, as Paul Dale’s recent blog on the recent and possible future impact of UKIP indirectly reminded us, falls between the two.

OK, compared to the Belgians, we’re really quite zippy. Still, it’s now a month since the local elections, and it’s only in the past few days that, for several of the 9 counties lumped together by the national media as ‘NOC’ (No Overall Control), we’ve learnt the answer to that basic question the elections were supposedly about: who will actually govern?

As Paul’s blog noted: “The Conservatives lost control of 10 authorities, including 5 where UKIP have the potential to become partners in power.” This blog will look at what the UKIP councillors in those councils made of that potential, which may in turn tell us something about the impact the party might have, were next year’s European Parliament elections to take place on the same day as those for English and Welsh local councils.

As we’ll see, its impact to date, both in the local elections and subsequently, has been much patchier than might have been supposed from some of the more excited commentary at the time. For example, over a quarter of the 27 county councils still have no UKIP councillors at all, and only 4, all in the south and east have more than 10.

Here in the West Midlands, Warwickshire and unitary Shropshire had and still have none. Staffordshire previously had 3, now only 2. Only in Worcestershire did the party make any significant advance, but its 4 seats, though equalling the Lib Dems, were not sufficient to deprive the Conservatives of their majority.

We’ll focus here, therefore, on the counties where the Conservatives did lose their former majorities, and take them in alphabetical order, rather than by size of UKIP representation. CAMBRIDGESHIRE was one of the previously staunchly Conservative counties where the party unmistakeably was UKIPped – the outsiders finishing third with 12 out of 69 seats, to the Conservatives’ 32 and the Lib Dems’ 14.

The Conservatives would have preferred to carry on indefinitely as a minority administration, but the 4 Independents ruled that out, while Labour (7) and the Lib Dems refused to join UKIP in supporting a non-Conservative rainbow coalition. Eventually, the Conservatives got half their cake: there will be a Conservative minority administration, but for only 12 months, following which UKIP’s preference, for ‘opening up’ council decision-making, will kick in and cabinets will be replaced by all-party committees. Here, then, the UKIP dozen certainly did make their presence felt, both positively and negatively.

In CUMBRIA, by contrast, there was no presence to make anything of. The elections reversed the standings of the Conservatives and Labour, the latter regaining their customary position as largest party with 35 of the 84 seats, and the Conservatives on 26. The slightly strengthened Lib Dems (16) were left as potential kingmakers, and they opted for coalition with Labour.

EAST SUSSEX council is much smaller than Cambridgeshire’s, but the party balance is broadly similar. Here, though, the other parties were readier to accept a Conservative minority administration, and, as in Cambridgeshire, although a Conservative-UKIP deal could have produced an arithmetical majority, none was apparently seriously pursued.

GLOUCESTERSHIRE was hung from 1981 to 2005, with Lib Dems generally the largest group – before, in 2009, the Conservatives suddenly swept to power with two-thirds of the seats. This time they lost their majority, but, with 23 members on the now smaller 53-seat council, they outnumber the Lib Dems (14) and Labour (7) combined, and will continue as a minority administration. UKIP’s 3 members, while clearly an improvement on none, were powerless to influence this arithmetic.

LANCASHIRE is Labour territory, and the party was hoping to regain majority control of the 84-seat council in one go. They managed only 39 seats, though, to the Conservatives’ 35 and the Lib Dems’ 6, while UKIP failed to break its representational duck. The Conservatives tried talking with anyone who might be interested in an anti-Labour coalition, but in the end the Lib Dems agreed to support a Labour minority administration.

LINCOLNSHIRE Conservatives are unused to coalition politics, but, holding 36 of the council’s 77 seats, they reacted quickly to their lost control by negotiating a coalition deal with the Lib Dems (3) and Independents (3) before the 16 new UKIP members could even elect themselves a leader. In the week they spent doing so, the party’s regional chairman pooh-poohed a coalition with the Conservatives on their behalf, and effectively condemned them to opposition from a starting-point which might have yielded considerably more.

In equally traditionally Conservative NORFOLK, the outmanoeuvred group were the Conservatives themselves. Holding 40 of the council’s 84 seats, they failed to conclude any agreement with the Lib Dems, and now find themselves in opposition to a minority coalition of Labour (14) and the Lib Dems (10) based on just 29% of members.

UKIP’s 15 votes were needed to get this deal off the ground – plus support from the Greens and an Independent – and the UKIP group describes itself as part of the coalition. That part, though, involves no cabinet seats, but rather the achievement of having won a Cambridgeshire-style agreement to abolish cabinet government and return to a committee system this time next year.

Before the Conservatives took control in 2005, OXFORDSHIRE had been hung for 20 years and it is again. But on a smaller, UKIP-free council the Conservatives, with 26 seats, came within one seat of retaining their overall majority – a position they’ve restored through a Conservative/Independent Alliance.

In WARWICKSHIRE Labour, though never the majority party, have regularly run the council as a minority and were hoping to regain this position. They didn’t, but they did do a deal with the Conservatives, the outcome being a Conservative minority administration, headed by the council’s first woman leader, Izzy Seccombe, with Labour holding the Scrutiny chairs, and the Lib Dems and Greens out in the cold, complaining of a stitch-up.

In summary, then, in no county council have UKIP members become ‘partners in power’ in the usual meaning of the term, which would involve having portfolio-holding members round the cabinet table. But UKIP dislike and denounce the cabinet system in principle, and what they have achieved in at least two counties – Cambridgeshire and Norfolk – are firm commitments to abolish cabinets and return to all-party committees in 12 months’ time. There might have been more, notably in Lincolnshire, but it’s by no means a dishonourable start.

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