Sunday, 23 May 2010

The First Coalition Test Emerges

It's time to get the betting slips out again as another election's in the offing. Where? In Norwich of course!

Today's Sunday Telegraph revelations introduce the tantalising prospect that there'll be elections in Norwich and Exeter City Council areas as a result of the unwinding of the Unitary Council legislation.

So, who's gonna win? Because it's Norwich, it's a lottery but could a Yellow/Blue coalition come up the middle in the first test of The Coalition Government? Read on...

There's a clue in today's Sunday Telegraph scoop on the Queen's Speech, where my eye was caught by the very second piece of legislation planned by the incoming Coalition Government.

Local Government (Revocation of Structural Change) Bill. (Dept for Communities and Local Govt).
This will stop the planned creation of single-tier councils serving Exeter and Norwich. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, brands the restructuring plans "wasteful and unnecessary" and claims scrapping them will save £40 million.

Now there's a thing! With the country in dire straits and a million problems to sort-out, new SoS 'hungry' Eric Pickles will be slipping-in a quick bit of primary legislation as a first manifesto pledge enacted as a hors d'oeuvre to stop the creation of Unitary Councils in Norwich & Exeter. At least this will stop him from feeling the need to reach for his famed pearl handled revolver.

But why does this piece of legislation mean that there might be an early electoral test of The Coalition?

The answer's hidden away in a Bunnco post from 10th February

As exclusively revealed [on PB] this morning, Labour has cancelled the elections in Norwich this May. Everyone expected the Greens to depose Labour, who were only 2 seats ahead. When the electorate realise that they’ve been cheated of their chance to give a verdict for the shambolic way Labour has run their city, there’ll be hell to pay.

No chance of Charles Clarke holding on. It's the greatest gerrymander since rotten boroughs were abolished in 1832.

Ministerial statement
"In particular the draft orders are providing for the 2010 elections to Exeter and Norwich city councils to be cancelled and for subsequent whole council elections to the new unitary councils to take place in 2011."

by bunnco February 10th, 2010 at 2:54 pm

That 'gerrymander' line caught on and was subsequently picked-up by Iain Dale, who scooped the news that the PermSec required written Direction from the Minister to proceed.

Subsequently The House of Lords Statutory Instruments Committee savaged the Unitary plans yet to the chagrin of local Tories, Conservative Lords did not vote down the orders when they came before the House on 'conventional' grounds unlike the LibDem Peers, who were Not Content. The legislation passed.

So you'd have thought it was Game Over. But what's not widely appreciated is that in the days running up to the General Election the Norfolk & Devon County Councils, in a last throw of the dice, had a 2 day hearing on 29/30th April at The Royal Courts of Justice with the aim of finding the entire process unlawful on the grounds that the Ministers changed the rules at the last moment to suit themselves and to 'fix' the result. No wonder Sir Humphrey objected.

The judge presiding over the judicial review of the government's decision to grant unitary status to Exeter and Norwich councils reserved judgment in the case until after the general election. That judgement is now due.

Now that Pickles has said the whole enterprise is to be scrapped, to a certain extent it's a bit academic but if the Judge rules that the Labour's decision to proceed was unlawful, then one option could be to run the cancelled elections for the City Council after all.

Now, what a delicious prospect that would be. The first 'proper' set of elections since The Coalition was formed.

And with the spotlight having been on Norwich for the last 12 months with firstly the Norwich North by-election and then the brutal 4-way fight in Norwich South with the LibDems ultimately successful on 29% of the vote, Norwich politics are likely to play centre stage. And it's by no means certain how a city-wide District election would pan-out.

Let's have a look at the vote shares from May 5th in Norwich South

Liberal Democrat 29.4
Labour 28.7
Conservative 22.9
Green 14.9

Note: We do have to remember that the Norwich South constituency did contain Costessey in the South Norfolk district, which is overwhelmingly LibDem and this Yellow boost would not apply in the Norwich City Council election.

Chloe Smith on Norwich Market

Similarly Chloe Smith's Norwich North result is too contaminated by the presence of Broadland district council to be a useful predictor of a City Council poll apart from showing the LibDems have a limited infrastructure in north of Norwich. Cons 40.6%; Lab 31.4%; LD 18.3%

On the basis that Pickles will not be able to resist poking Labour in the eye and allowing his coalition partners the chance to rebuild their shattered base in Norwich, I'm going to predict that the cancelled elections will be fought again, either by the order of The Judge or by a clause in the Bill.

So if this happens, let's have a look at the runners and riders in more detail.

Norwich City Council is a 39 member council with 13 three-member wards elected on 'Thirds'. It's currently run by a Labour Minority administration and when you look at the Maths, you can see how precarious the Red position is. The seats are split Lab 15; Grn 13; LibDem 6; Cons 5;

And, if the election is to be run in 13 wards, Labour has 6 seats on-risk, the Greens 4, the LibDems 2 and Tories 1. Here are the celebrities

Ward Party Name Group Leader
Bowthorpe Conservative Anthony Little Group Leader
Crome Labour Jenny Lay
Lakenham Labour Mary Cannell
Mile Cross Labour Linda Blakeaway
Sewell Labour Susan Sands
Toen Close Green Janet Bearman
Wensum Green Tom Llewellyn
Catton Grove Labour Brian Morrey
Eaton LibDem Brian Watkins Group Leader
Mancroft Green Howard Jago
Nelson Green Claire Stephenson Group Leader
Thorpe Hamlet LibDem Joyce Divers
University Labour Bert' Bremner

Interestingly three of the Group Leaders are up for grabs but bunnco understands that Labour's deputy leader [Catton Grove] is now ineligible to stand having moved into neighbouring South Norfolk district so some changes are inevitable.

Labour's record in the City is mixed, to put it politely. They inherited a bit of a mess from the LibDems but haven't made the progress they should have done having been completely distracted by the Unitary vanity project. They allowed a £8m budget black hole to develop and scandalised the area by evicting old-dears from sheltered accomodation before moving-in the Head of Housing at a cheaper rent. They hoped the Unitary Council would save their bacon. It's actually destroyed them.

And with the ultimate failure of the Unitary dream upon which millions of pounds have been wasted, the recriminations amongst local Labour activists are now breaking out into the open. A verdict of misadventure should surely be recorded with the City Labour party blaming the parliamentary party for the serial foul-ups in the unitary process. And vice-versa. With defeat at a national level and the local party split, they're bound to lose ground.

But to whom?

The Tories have never featured in City Council politics outside the leafy streets of Catton Grove and Bowthorpe so I'll skip over these. Conservative Anthony Little [Bowthorpe] was the defeated Parliamentary candidate in Norwich South but benefits from good name-recognition and he'll hang-on.

The Greens power-base is in Norwich South rather than the northern part of the City. They shrewdly built-up good canvassing records in last year's Norwich North by-election but a lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. The University area is where they are strong on pavement politics. They are only behind The Reds by two seats in total so they only need to take a single seat of Labour to tie. Bert Bremner [a double-hatter] in the University [of East Anglia] ward and Mary Cannell should be favourites to yield to The Greens in which case the Greens could take control in a minority administration.

So, everything is set fair for the Greens to take control by nicking a seat from Labour. Isn't it?

But what's this? Could a resurgent LibDem vote eat the Greens in turn and see Labour hang-on?

The leafy streets in the South which are now held by the Greens used to be LibDem Central until the Greens out-LibDem'd the LibDems with their own brand of pavement politics. But things change.

With Simon Wright installed in Westminster for the LibDems and their Libertarian-Idealist policies being implemented in Government, we might expect the LibDems to push the Greens back in their heartland. The LibDems do well in one-off by-elections and can bus-in supporters from elsewhere. This is an infrastructure the Greens lack. And the 29.4 to 14.8 percent bar-charts from May 5th will see an unflattering 'Greens Can't Win Here' message on Focus leaflets.

Hmmmmm. There's quite a lot of interplay here.

They start at Lab 15; Grn 13; LibDem 6; Cons 5. But with a third of the seats up for grabs if Reds lose to the Greens, who in turn leak to the Yellows, whilst the Blues mark time, then there could be an L11 - G12 - LD11 - C5 split, in which case a Coalition of the Yellows and Blue would trump the lot! Stranger things have happened.

The attitude of The Electorate to the Coalition will be the deciding factor and one which will have repercussions far outside the City boundaries, not least the tactics to be employed in the District Council elections in 2011, where the Tories have 5000 councillors up for election.

Come on Eric! Make it exciting for us. I could do with another election! But as for the betting? It's a lottery. Norwich does it again.

Bunnco - Your Man on the Spot.

PS - The same issues apply in Exeter but I don't have enough local knowledge of that scene.


DM Andy said...

I'm a bit confused because if it's Labour 11, Greens 12, Lib Dem 11 and Tories 5 wouldn't it be more feasible for a Red-Green alliance than a Yellow-Blue minority?

bunnco said...

The Greens and Labour dislike each other and the issue of the 'Northern Distributor Road' is talismanic. The Reds recognise the need for the bypass but, for the Greens, it's a Red-Line against.

Can't see a Red/Green coalition at all.

Anonymous said...

The Tories ought to pick up the last Catton Grove seat at least, but the Greens will continue to wipe the Lib Dems out. Local and national never go hand in hand in Norwich. I predict Lib Dems will finish as the smallest party on the Council.

Anonymous said...


Now that Pickles has said the whole enterprise is to be scrapped, to a certain extent it's a bit academic but if the Judge rules that the Labour's decision to proceed was unlawful, then one option could be to run the cancelled elections for the City Council after all.

Does this mean that if the Judge rules that the decision to proceed was lawful, the cancelled elections cannot be run?