As we approach the local elections on Thursday, and with the Tories rocked by a succession of scandals and crises since the Budget, the local Tory candidates can increasingly see the writing on the wall.
As a result there seems to be an increasing attempt by Tory candidates to disassociate themselves with their own party, taking the local battle that’s been attracting most attention, the very marginal ward of Winnersh, the initial leaflet from Tory candidate Mark Ashwell is quite clearly Tory.
But on this page are pictures of the latest ‘leaflet’, an apparent copy of a handwritten letter. It does mention he’s the Conservative candidate in the second paragraph, but the required declaration on the bottom of the second page lists only his agents name, and the address of the local Conservatives, without actually highlighting that this is the Conservative HQ. There is no Conservative branding at all.
So what is going on? This is not the only place it is happening, elsewhere local Tory candidates are starting to see the Tory brand as toxic.
But as you come to the booth on Thursday to cast your vote what do you do? Don’t be fooled, whatever the leaflets say, if you vote for a Tory you get a Tory, if you vote for a Liberal Democrat you get a Liberal Democrat, if you vote for a Labour candidate that’s what you get too. If you want somebody independent who will stand up for wherever you live then you need an independent – but there are precious few of those around. Also don’t forget that around here you’ve got the Green Party and UKIP vying for your vote as well, in fact they’re running in more seats than Labour this time around.
Certainly with the unpopularity of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats nationally and the memory of Labour still pretty fresh (and not really a big force around here) the election in Wokingham is going to be interesting. The rubbish issue really has got an awful lot of people annoyed, especially when, like most things around here it was brought in with the minimum of consultation and many people were totally unaware of it until blue bags started dropping through their door. Could it be the issue that results in a dent in the local Tory parties absolute power and domination of the Borough? But if people are also wary of the Liberal Democrats over national issues, and have doubts over Labour, could we be seeing some UKIP and Green councillors by the end of the week?
It may have escaped your attention, but it’s election time. Across large parts of the country people will be delighted to have Eastenders and Coronation Street interrupted by a knock at the door, a local politician of one colour or another who you won’t have seen since the last election tell you a whole load of reasons why you should vote for them in a couple of weeks.
Around these parts one of the favourite claims of Wokingham Borough Councillors from the ruling Conservative group is that Wokingham is the poorest funded council in the country. Indeed the claim has been made so frequently that it’s made the BBC news site.
It has to be said that when I tell people outside the borough what is said reactions range from regarding it as a ridiculous statement, to people on the receiving end of very real cuts to council services regarding it as a pretty crass and insensitive statement for leaders of the council in one of the richest and least deprived areas of the country to be moaning about money. Much the same reaction as to a banker moaning that his bonus isn’t big enough, or a millionaire moaning about the size of his tax bill. But the question is, is it actually true?
To answer the question we have to look at how local government is funded. Broadly speaking a local council gets money from two sources, the first is the money it raises through the council tax. This is collected in a banded scheme whereby each property in the country is allocated to a band between A and H, based on the capital value of the property in 1991, and the tax bill graded up or down so higher band properties pay more. There is a Wikipedia article that explains how the system works. The second source is from central government and consists of business rates and a block grant, the level of which is set by central government as explained in this plain English guide. Interestingly the example authority used by the document is Wokingham, and the document makes clear that needy areas such as Hackney deliberately get more funding via the grant than well off areas such as Wokingham.
So if you look purely the government grant component of the council finances, Wokingham does get the smallest grant, however as the governments own document explains Wokingham as one of the least deprived areas in the country, and with a well off population and high value housing has more resources of it’s own.
Tories would be the first to highlight benefit scroungers claiming money when they aren’t entitled, and yet our local Tories regularly bleat about poorly funded Wokingham. Whilst all local authorities are seeing real cuts in funding, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation lays out the effect of cuts on Wokingham in table 2 – a tiny cut in spending power compared to places like Liverpool and Manchester.
During the run up to the recent local elections I swapped a number of e-mails with both Gary Cowan, the sitting Tory councillor, and Steve Bacon, the Liberal Democrat challenger and former local councillor for our ward who had also run against Gary in the 2006 election. It started because I sent both of them an e-mail asking that they could run a campaign with integrity, and not produce a repeat of the last campaign with blatant misrepresentation particularly over housing. Sadly although Steve Bacon gave me an assurance, Gary didn’t, and then proceeded to campaign on a totally mythical and ludicrous assertion that the Liberal Democrats were proposing to put 12,000 houses on the Garrison site (yes that would be houses at a density of central London for those with calculators), and that the Tories were the only option for protecting Arborfield.
In the run up to the election Gary, like most of the other Tory candidates and Wokingham Borough Council itself had been squarely blaming the Labour government for the current housing numbers. One of Gary’s election flyers said the following:
The extra homes in Wokingham’s Core Strategy are required by the Labour government’s national policy and regional housing targets. If a Conservative government is elected they will abolish the high housing targets forced on Wokingham, leaving Wokingham Borough Council free to amend its plans and scale down the targets. If re-elected, as the lead Councillor for planning I would then ensure that our local plan was revised to spare the greenfields of Arborfield.
As we know, a Tory led government was elected on May 6th, and they duly abolished housing targets, therefore it was a bit of a surprise to most people in Wokingham to find that despite pressure from our local MP, who of course had been around on the doorstep backing the cut housing numbers message, and highlighting the same thing in his blog after the election, and the well known opposition of the vast majority of local residents to large scale housing developments, the local council seemed to be suggesting that numbers wouldn’t be cut significantly as they had already adopted their core strategy. This is even more peculiar considering that they, like many other councils had received this letter in August 2009 highlighting that an incoming Tory government would abolish regional spatial strategies and urging councils not to adopt core strategies – Wokingham Borough adopted their strategy in January 2010, four months before the current Tory government was elected and abolished housing targets.
Were the local Tories telling any old lies on their election material to win votes and never had any intention to cut housing? Did they not expect a Tory win at the General Election? Or are they just total muppets with no clue what they were doing when they adopted the strategy? I really don’t know, suffice to say back in June it really did start to look like Wokingham was doomed to go under a swathe of concrete and large scale housing development. I may not agree with John Redwood (@johnredwood) on many things, indeed I’m probably diametrically opposite to his position on some things, but at least he’s being consistent on this – he was elected on abolishing housing targets, his party has done that, and it’s the local council that is dragging and threatening to U-turn.
However, all is not lost, as the headline implied, the governing group on the council is not united. A number of local councillors have come out and said that if it comes to a vote over retaining the existing numbers, or cutting them, they would go for a cut. However there are suggestions from some of the Tories that they are worried that it will never come to a vote – the ten person executive, only one of whom has come out to say they are opposed to retaining the current numbers (and you guessed it, it isn’t Gary Cowan, despite his promise to protect the green fields of Arborfield), would take the vote alone without consulting the other 33 Tory councillors.
So are there some Wokingham Tories with integrity? Lets be fair, if you’d been saying for years that the numbers were too high, and being imposed by the Labour government, anyone with integrity could not do anything else but vote to cut the numbers could they?
There is a bit of a double act going on between Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) and Eric Pickles (@ericpickles) on Twitter at times with one promoting the other. One such bit of promotion came last week when Grant Shapps tweeted the following:
Eric Pickles standing up for England’s counties and 1,000 years of English history – http://bit.ly/aD1Z0Z
SIR – I share the public’s concern (Letters, August 9) at the recommendation of the Postcode Address File Advisory Board to delete counties from the Royal Mail’s address database by 2016. It speaks volumes that unelected officials regard our counties – and over 1,000 years of English history – as a “vanity attachment”.
But the new Government is taking steps to defend our counties. We have scrapped Labour’s gerrymandering which sought to break up the counties of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk for electoral advantage and we are dismantling the tiers of regional assemblies and development agencies.
I have to say I greeted that with a good deal of amusement, the reason being that I live in what was once the county of Berkshire one of the oldest in the country, which exists now purely as a ceremonial county, and it’s not been Labour gerrymandering for electoral advantage that has reduced the county to a mark on the map, it was the Tory Local Government Act 1972 that transferred a chunk of the county including the former county town of Abingdon to Oxfordshire in 1974, and then the previous Tory administration gerrymandering for electoral advantage that abolished the whole county in 1998 – John Gummer chose to ignore the recommendations of the commission leaving Berkshire with six unitary authorities.
So what is the effect? For us in our little village at a simple level it means significantly less representation. We have a single local councillor, who we can only vote for once every four years, for the other three years our opinion counts for absolutely nothing. Under the old two tier system we had representation at both local and county level, and many more opportunities to vote.
Looking wider, we now have six authorities fighting with each other. We saw it with the endless debates over housing allocation where Wokingham District fought and lost the battle with the other authorities – each authority purely focused on their own people. Even government documents such as this concede that the six small unitary authorities don’t work in the best interests of the people, check out this paragraph on page 5:
The unitary structure of local government across Berkshire makes it difficult for other stakeholders to engage on issues that cut across boundaries. This is further complicated by the range of political views and agendas within and across the local authorities, and by the fact that changes across other public sector bodies do not align with the Local Authorities or each other (e.g. Police, Primary Care Trusts and Learning and Skills Council)
The size of the authorities causes problems too, I remember a number of discussions with local teachers of the problems, for example the peculiarities caused by Wokingham outsourcing much of their education to next door Surrey, or the fact that school repair projects that were approved by Berkshire were dropped by Wokingham who had more limited funds. We still have the effects now more than a decade later with many students being educated in schools in adjacent authorities rather than their own, purely because villages in the west of Wokingham are closer to schools in West Berkshire, students in parts of Reading are closer to schools in Wokingham.
That also highlights a missed opportunity – Reading still doesn’t have one authority overseeing a strategy for the whole town. A large chunk towards the south east of Greater Reading is in Wokingham, indeed most of the University of Reading is in Wokingham. Over in the west another chunk of the town is looked after by West Berkshire. In both cases there is no clear divide between the areas, but the historic borders were retained.
So will the Tories stand up for England’s counties? I don’t know, but as a resident of the former county of Berkshire their past record doesn’t bode well for the future.
On Thursday I wrote a post discussing my thoughts about the election. Now two days later we have had the results, and at a national level are still going through the machinations caused by the results.
I have heard it said often that whatever people tell pollsters, when they get into the polling booth they can do something totally different. The 1992 General Election is a good example of this effect where the polls were predicting a Labour victory, but the country returned the sitting, and apparently deeply unpopular Conservative government for another term. For decades the government of the UK has been flip-flopping from Labour to Conservative and back to Labour again, usually with a large pool of floating voters who are voting to get rid of something they don’t like, rather than voting for something they do.
This time around according to the polls Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats had made a big impression during the campaign, and according to the pollsters had historically high poll ratings, at times pushing Labour into third place. But on the day all these poll gains evaporated – across the country people were desperate to get rid of an unpopular government and saw voting for the Conservatives as a way to do it.
It was against this backdrop that we must look at the results for Wokingham. John Redwood our sitting Conservative MP was returned with a significant increase in majority. In the press this has been reported as a swing from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives, but when you look at the votes this is misleading. There was a significant increase in turnout over 2005 – in actual fact of the three main parties only Labour had less votes – the Liberal Democrat candidate received more votes. However most of the additional turnout went to the sitting Conservative candidate. Mark Ashwell the independent candidate polled a couple of thousand votes, noticeable, but not enough to really impact the vote.
Locally, there was a big jump in turnout – the last time this ward was elected it wasn’t on the day of a General Election. Occurring on the same day it is rare for people to vote differently in the two elections, so again the local councillor was returned with a sizeable majority. Indeed across the whole of the borough only one ward changed hands, passing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats. In the run up to the vote I had been swapping e-mails with our local councillor who had been defeatist right from the off, saying that our Resident Action Group website was going to lose him the election, that he knew his time was up, and during the course of the campaign we had more than double the number of flyers through from him. In my e-mails I’d repeatedly said that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was still the village councillor on May 7th, and I’m not – this is a staunchly Conservative area, and whilst there is a good deal of anger amongst some of the residents it is a big step for many from being angry about what is going on to actively voting for someone else. The big disappointment is that his insecurity in his electorate led him to produce election literature with some truly ludicrous and unfounded claims that do nothing for the reputation of politicians. I have much more respect for someone who has run a clean and honest campaign and lost than someone who has run a dishonest campaign and won.
Reflecting on the local situation, we now have a very interesting situation developing nationally, as the two parties who on a local level here seem to truly loathe one another find themselves thrust together as the Cameron led Conservatives find themselves with no option but to ask the Clegg led Liberal Democrats to support them to allow them to form a government. Thanks to the British constitution the incumbent Prime Minister stays in the job if nobody gets an overall majority. The Conservatives need the Liberal Democrats. More ironically any decision to support them needs a positive vote from 75% of the parliamentary party and 75% of the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive, and if they can’t agree it needs a ballot of the members. Suddenly in order to have any chance of forming a government the Conservatives need the support of the self same people who in our area they have been making ludicrous accusations about just days before.
The situation is also causing people to reflect on the absurdity and perverse nature of our venerable first-past-the-post voting system. The whole system favours parties with dominant pockets of support, as a result of the system country wide it took the vote of 35,021 Conservative supporters to elect one MP, and 33,338 Labour supporters to elect one MP for them. However it took the vote of 119,397 to elect on Liberal Democrat MP – the final seats in the Commons fail to reflect the votes cast nationally. Other perverse results include the City of Oxford, which is split into two constituencies. Across the whole city 41,087 people voted Liberal Democrat, 33,633 voted Conservative and 27,937 voted Labour, however because of the distribution of the voters the city is now represented by one Conservative and one Labour MP. Similarly in Wokingham Borough across ward after ward the Liberal Democrats come a strong second, but they have vastly fewer seats on council because the same unfair voting system operates in local council elections.
However thanks to the failure of the Conservatives to win a majority they now need the help of the Liberal Democrats to govern, and whilst elements of the press seem to think that they should quietly trot along and just prop up a minority Conservative government who only gained the support of 36% of the electorate, there are other groups who see this as a golden opportunity to properly reform our voting system. Today a fair votes demonstration that was going on largely unnoticed in Trafalgar Square, decided to go and visit the building where Nick Clegg was discussing the offer made by the Conservatives to try and get Liberal Democrat support – an offer that doesn’t include the promise of a change in voting system, this was the result:
Could this be the dawn of a new age in terms of British democracy – or will it just go back to business as usual?
Thoughts from, and the lives of a Canadian and a Brit living in Southern England.