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Who’ll work with the Lib Dems?

Who’ll work with the Lib Dems?

🕔19.Sep 2013

In light of Nick Clegg’s determination to remain a party of power, Chris Game provides a break from HS2 Week to muse about Coalition in local politics across the Midlands.

I keep checking, but apparently in vain. The Chamberlain Files’ HS2 Week really is what it says on the tin: a solid week of HS2. Evidently, if you don’t get HS2 into your opening paragraph, you get spiked. It’s a kind of inverse form of the Fawlty Towers ‘Don’t mention the war’ episode. I’ve now mentioned HS2 four times, so I may have got away with it – because, in the interests of variety and sanity, and also because actuarially I’ll probably be dead before the thing gets anywhere near the Midlands, I want to read about something else, even if it means writing it myself.

I did wonder if opening with an HS2 joke might get me past the spike, but I only know two. One’s old and generic, the other oldish, and both are negative, so I decided against it. What? You want to hear them? OK, you asked for it.

The old one is the Chicken Gun joke, adaptable to almost any British transport project (Thanks, Stop HS2!). HS2 engineers get hold of a gun NASA scientists have built to simulate collisions of military jets with large birds, by firing a 4-pound dead chicken at a windshield to test its strength. Unfortunately, when they test it, the chicken smashes right through the HS2 windshield, shatters the control console, kills the engineer, and embeds itself in the back wall of the cabin. And NASA’s laconic response? “Defrost the chicken!”

The other one is from Austin Mitchell, the longstanding Labour MP for Grimsby: HS2 is Concorde for slow learners.

Tough link coming up! That Mitchell quote reminds me of something Aneurin Bevan, another distinguished Labour politician and architect of the NHS, was wont to say: Why look into the crystal ball when you can read the book?

The crystal ball in this instance is all the speculation this week about which party the Liberal Democrats would prefer to work with, were the 2015 Election to produce another hung parliament. There were two polls last weekend – one of Lib Dem members for the Independent on Sunday, one of Lib Dem councillors for BBC1’s Sunday Politics programme – both showing that they’d greatly prefer Labour, the devil they don’t really know, to the one they’re currently in coalition with.

Mildly interesting, and at least it refers to something that will happen before 2026. But why speculate about what national politicians might do in the event of a future hung parliament, when you can read the metaphorical book and see what local politicians have done in reality when confronted with hung councils.

I’m skipping over Birmingham 2004 and the surprise formation of the famous Conservative-Lib Dem ‘Progressive Partnership’ – you know, the one that wouldn’t last eight months, but in fact managed eight years. This is a snapshot of the coalitions, pacts, alliances and understandings that are in place today in hung councils here in the West Midlands region.

Don’t get alarmed! There are only 5 (though I cheat a bit), and WYRE FOREST, though having both a Liberal & Independent-Independent group and a Liberal & Independent-Liberal group (honestly!), has no actual Lib Dems, and so excludes itself from this exercise. The other 28 councils in the region are all majority controlled by either the Conservatives (16) or Labour (12).

I’ll start with WARWICKSHIRE, because the hung county council there resulted from the elections just a few months ago. The Conservatives lost overall control of the 62-member council, but remained the largest party with 26 seats. Labour were up to 22, and there were 9 Lib Dems, 2 Greens, and 3 Independents.

The Lib Dems wanted a multi-party rainbow coalition, the Conservatives didn’t, and, as regularly happens in local government, Labour preferred to do business with their traditional opponents. They agreed to abstain in the key vote at the annual meeting, allowed the Conservatives to form a minority administration, and in exchange took control of the scrutiny committees.

There were accusations, naturally, of a stitch-up, but no cabinet seats were involved, so Labour could argue that they remain free to work and vote with the smaller parties to defeat any policies they wish to oppose.

Straying temporarily over the regional border, there’s a similar situation on the 53-member GLOUCESTERSHIRE County Council, although there the Lib Dems (14) are the second largest group and felt even more miffed as the Conservatives (23) rejected their call for an all-party administration, preferring instead an unminuted deal with third-placed Labour (9) over the chairs of key scrutiny committees.

So far, then, no very encouraging signs for the Lib Dems of reciprocated affection from Labour. However, if we stay in Gloucestershire for one more paragraph, there’s rather better news from STROUD.

The Conservatives lost majority control of the 51-member district council in 2012, but they were still the largest party and, with 22 seats, the arithmetic was ideal for a majority alliance with the 5 Lib Dems. But they were outflanked by Labour, who, with 16 seats, assembled their own majority in coalition with the Lib Dems and 5 Greens.

Similar arithmetic, though, can produce different outcomes. In STAFFORDSHIRE MOORLANDS the Conservatives lost overall control of their 53-member council in 2011, but with 25 seats remained overwhelmingly the largest party. As in Stroud, the 4 Lib Dems could have provided them with a working majority, but in this case they decided a coalition with the 11 Independents would be presumably more harmonious.

But if Moorlands Independents thwarted the Lib Dems, those in WALSALL helped them, at least indirectly. Labour in 2012 were hoping to end 12 years of Conservative rule by winning an overall majority, but managed only to become the largest party, with 28 of the 60 council seats to the Conservatives’ 24.

The 3 Independents refused to give Labour a majority, and, while an alliance with the 5 Lib Dems was arithmetically possible, in political and personal terms it was a non-starter. The outcome, therefore, was a formal Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, with Lib Dem leader, Ian Shires, taking a seat in the cabinet.

Labour members are clearly still bitter, as they unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the coalition through a no confidence vote at this year’s annual meeting, but again couldn’t get the Independents to support them. However, if it’s serious plotting and blood-letting you’re after, then you need to get down the M5 to WORCESTER.

Back in May, most election-watchers’ attention was on the county elections and in Worcestershire on Labour’s ultimately dashed hopes of winning enough seats to recreate the Lab/Lib Dem pact that had run the council in the 1990s. The heavy action, meanwhile, was not in County Hall but in the City Council’s Guildhall, where Labour pulled off a notable coup.

At 9.00 p.m. on Tuesday 14th May, the 17 Conservatives were running the 35-member council as a minority administration, backed by the 2 Lib Dems. Then by 10.00 p.m. they weren’t, having been dramatically ousted by a coalition of Labour’s 15 members, the single Green, and, yes, those same Lib Dems. They described their turnabout as a carefully considered “change of mind”; the Conservatives pronounced it shameless, unprincipled and considerably worse.

If you’re a Liberal Democrat keeping score, I reckon it’s 2-1-3. Two cases – Stroud and Worcester – where they’re in coalition with Labour, their preferred option; one, Walsall, where they’re in coalition with the Conservatives, which is considerably better than nothing; and three cases where the Conservatives just didn’t want to know, despite the Lib Dems having the numbers that could have given them majorities.

And the lessons for 2015? Absolutely none!

A similar article appeared in the Birmingham Post on 19 September 2013.

Cover Image: Lib Dem Voice

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