Saturday, 5 December 2009

No more tiers for Labour?

With Norwich at the centre of yet another political storm with the Climategate saga, it’s been a bit frustrating for Bunnco as Your Man on the Spot in Norfolk with the UEA in lock-down mode. Despite a bit of digging, there’s no juicy intel to report on the Climate story that hasn’t already been covered in WattsUpWithThat. But like the proverbial bus you can wait forever and suddenly two stories come along at once so in this article I’m going to write about something that we’d all thought had gone away – Local Government Reorganisation [LGR] in Norfolk, Suffolk & Devon and whether it tells us that Labour really has given up on winning in 2010.

Just when it looked like Labour had nothing to lose and was destined for cataclysmic defeat, the media narrative has changed and they might have something to play for after all. So you’d have thought that Labour strategists would be straining every sinew to protect as many English seats as possible from the Tory onslaught if they’re to be in with a chance.

But what’s this? Plans for local government reorganisation [LGR] in Devon, Suffolk & Norfolk have been reignited by Communities Secretary John Denham following a Court of Appeal ruling this week, which undid an earlier block to the process from the High Court dating back to July.

Normally this sort of thing would only be of interest to local political anoraks and readers of the Municipal Journal but over on the main site, Mike included the following paragraph in his post this evening,

“Among the other cabinet members who might be at risk I’ve noticed that Ben Bradshaw’s Exeter seat is more marginal with Thrasher and Rallings than with Anthony Wells. “

That’s right, Exeter is in Devon. So you’d have thought that it would be careless to say the least for Denham to knowingly jeopardise the risk of re-election for fellow top-table colleague, Ben Brashaw by pressing-on with yet another expensive and unnecessary public sector reorganisation in Devon if he could avoid it.

And that’s no mere assertion. There’s evidence for this. Cast your mind back to July and the Norwich North By Election, where Chloe Smith took the seat when Labour’s Ian Gibson stepped down over the expenses crisis.

But new baby-of-the-house Chloe Smith didn’t just win the seat from Labour by a whisker. The margin was 39.44% to Labour’s 18.12%. What local factors caused such a wide margin and a disproportionate swing from a previous Labour stronghold?

As Bunnco reported at the time, whilst the expenses backdrop and anti-politician narrative was strong, the leaflet that really drove the Tory vote in the final week was one that highlighted the council reorganisation issue. With a failing Labour Norwich City Council on the rack over a series of housing scandals, voters were galvanised to Vote Tory to save Broadland Council in the leafy suburbs, where MORI polling had shown a remarkable 94% satisfaction rating and district-council tax about half that paid in the Norwich City area. The Tories made it clear they’d cancel any Council reorganisation and reaped the votes accordingly, squeezing the LibDems in the process.

So, as a local voting factor, getting rid of local Councils in favour of so called Unitary versions is not exactly what you’d call a vote winner. In Norfolk, MORI polling confirmed a previous YouGov survey – LGR was rejected by voters by a margin of two-to-one. In Cornwall, the Tories romped home by a landslide in the June Elections. The former Labour strongholds in Northumberland are now led by a LibDem and the Tories have a stranglehold on other recently created Unitaries in Cheshire and Bedfordshire. In Devon itself, the Tories romped home last June as well. Unitary is electorally toxic for Labour.

In his post this evening, Mike’s identified Ben Bradshaw’s Devon seat as increasingly vulnerable and over in Norfolk, Norwich South is held by Charles Clarke, Great Yarmouth by Tony Wright, Lowestoft by Bob Blizzard and Ipswich by Chris Mowle. That’s five English Labour Seats that Labour really needs to hold if it’s to be in the running come Election Day.

Given the proximity of the election and the crowded Parliamentary timetable, Denham would have been forgiven for kicking the botched process into the long grass. After all, the hapless Boundary Committee had mishandled the sifting of the various options so badly that it had got nowhere after nearly three years of trying. He could have blamed it on the incompetent Boundary Committee, which he is abolishing in March anyway.

So why pick an unnecessary fight on five colleagues now with three months to go? It just doesn’t make political sense.

The LGR process was the brainchild of Hazel Blears during her time as Chairman of the Labour Party and later as Communities Secretary herself. Forget talk of council reorganisation leading to increased efficiencies and better accountability in local government, the motivation of the diminutive chipmunk-like Blears was quite simply to reduce the number of Tory councillors in the shires. Let’s do the maths. On my home-patch there are 420 Councillors in Norfolk of which about 300 are Tory. If the district and county councils were replaced with a single monster council with about 80 councillors, then the Tories might be deprived of 250 activists and organisers for the General Election.

So you can see the crude political logic for Labour but the figures on which the proposals are based are now three years old and the local government financial landscape has changed dramatically since the heady days in early 2007 when it seemed such a wizard wheeze. The savings from recent unitary conversions in Northumberland, Cheshire and Cornwall have failed to materialise and creating a new class of professional ‘Unitary’ Politician on bumper salaries isn’t exactly in tune with the public mood either.

Caroline Spelman and Bob Neill [Shadow Local Government minister] reassured their own activists this week that an incoming Tory Government would reverse the move if Labour managed to get the secondary legislation required through Parliament when the near-two-month delay for consultation that starts on Tuesday has elapsed.

There are very few Parliamentary sitting days between now and Easter and with plans to reform the House of Lords as well as a number of other scorched-earth policies to enact, it’s a surprise that business-managers have let the LGR issue to slip through the net to compete with more mainstream issues, especially with rumours of a March 25th election reaching fever pitch.

So the lesson from this little story is that either Labour is masochistic and willing to damage the re-election chances of 5 MPs south of the border, including 3 big-hitters, or they really have written-off the election and are pursuing a scorched-earth policy in three counties where, otherwise they have nothing to lose. Perhaps, for all the bluster, they are resigned to defeat after all.

Bunnco - Your Man On The Spot


Richard Nabavi said...

Another very interesting post, bunnco - thank you.

One things that worries me, however, is that you might be extrapolating too much from Norwich North:

Voters were galvanised to Vote Tory to save Broadland Council in the leafy suburbs where MORI polling had shown a remarkable 94% satisfaction rating and district-council tax about half that paid in the Norwich City area.

Doesn't this suggest that it's not necessarily the principle of Unitary Councils that is unpopular, and, therefore, that reactions might be different elsewhere?

Anonymous said...

From AnneJGP

Bunnco - very interesting. I'm not clear whether the Norwich reorganisation is going the same way as the Exeter one. I thought Exeter was pushing for independence from Devon County Council. IIRC, there was a review that showed anticipated costs/savings wouldn't be as beneficial as those in favour had projected.

But I was very much pre-occupied at the time and the hoohah mostly passed me by.

bunnco said...

A good challenge Richard but that's why you have local correspondents to report on local issues. Yes, there'll be an element of Uniform National Swing... but it's the local factors at the margins that will determine whether some really tight seats change hands or not. And LGR is a hot issue that could just deliver those marginal votes. After all, who wants to pay more council tax for worse services?

Richard Manns said...

An excellent article based on local knowledge that, while different everywhere, might be generalisable if Labour really has the same scorched-earth policy on local government as it has on the economy.

However, I think it's pretty much set in stone that Labour are toast in 2010, even to most Labour supporters. The Pre-Budget Report will be simply more of the same.