Election Reflections – 3

As I write this, 61 successful Oxfordshire county councillors will be getting into their cars while the 2 Greens will undoubtedly be hopping onto their bicycles and making their way to County Hall where they will all deliberate on the way forward. Dominant in their minds will be the electoral statistics; the county council is technically hung with the Conservatives one seat short of the 32 they needed for outright control. The 15 Labour members; 11 Liberals; 4 Independents and 2 Greens will all be wondering what they can secure from a deal. image

For the Conservatives there is always the danger of navel gazing, recriminations and the search for one or more people to blame.  There is nothing to gain from this and everything to lose; it should not be necessary to say it but past history says it probably is.

Next for the Conservatives is a serious debate about how to manage in a hung council.  The first 12 years of my being a councillor were in a very hung council with the three main parties in close numerical proximity and it was an unmitigated disaster.  The officers did their best to stitch deals together with any two of the three groups.  The reality was that all three political groups were in effective opposition.

That is not the case here, with 32 Conservatives and the opposition members split four ways, it is unthinkable that the council will not have a Conservative Administration. The question is how will they achieve this?  There is a timescale and there are obstacles to overcome. The timescale looks horribly tight.  The Annual Meeting of the county council is on 14 May. At this meeting, the council has to elect the Chairman of the Council and the Vice-Chairman.  These are non-political offices, rather like the Speaker of the House of Commons but whoever is Chairman has some influence in the administrative processes.  For the last four years, the Conservative group determined to elect both the Chairman and the Vice-Chairman from their own Group and this annoyed the other groups considerably.  I have no doubt Chairmanship will be an issue for negotiation before 14 May.  Of course the opposition groups will have to be sure they can muster a full attendance on 14 May but, given the Conservative performance in the last council, this may be a constant worry for the 31 Conservative members who will need a very effective Chief Whip.

Incidentally, from now until 14 May, the council has no Leader and no Cabinet but it does have a Chairman who is Don Seale. He was Chairman in the last council; like me he stood down on 2 May but he remains the legal Chairman of the council until his successor is appointed.  I suspect Don will be amused by this and his casting vote just might prove helpful on 14 May.

This meeting of council is then expected to appoint the Leader of the Council who, in turn, will appoint the Cabinet.  The council will also appoint the Leader of the Opposition.  Finally appointments are to be made to the various committees, comprising scrutiny, planning and others. This makes for a busy time for the leaders of the political groups who will have new as well as seasoned members and who will also have to reach some sort of agreement about how the council might be run.   The Chief Executive and the Solicitor to the Council will also have key roles here in providing technical advice and, I suspect, in acting as honest broker between competing interests.

The Conservatives will elect their Group Officers this morning. These are Leader, Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer and Chief Whip.  I expect Ian Hudspeth to be elected as Leader.  The other offices are less easy to predict. The role of Chairman was an arduous one in the last group.  The final occupant was Stewart Lilly and he may well put himself forward again.  The role of Chief Whip is clearly critical given the numbers and it will be interesting to see who emerges. The group leader then has to put together a Cabinet and to allocate members to committees and to select committee chairmen.

Given the hung nature of the council, there may be much horse trading over the next weeks because Labour and the Liberals will demand committee chairmanships. The big debate for the Conservatives will be around the hung council.  They have several options:

  • to run a minority administration, relying on the inability of the 32 opposition members to unite in key votes and on the tight discipline of their own members in securing full attendance;
  • to reach an agreement with one or more Independents for their support.  There may be a price for this in a Cabinet place or a chairmanship somewhere.  Two of the Independents are ex-Labour (Sibley and Harris) and might find it hard to work with Conservatives;
  • to reach an agreement with Labour, Liberals or Greens to form a coalition.  The Greens sound pretty left-wing to me and I suspect this would be a non-starter;  I doubt Labour would want to play ball and would certainly demand an unacceptably high price; where the Liberals stand is anyone’s guess – as it always is!  In any case, it would be pretty distasteful and, I think, unnecessary, given this is about one seat and one vote.

This is all quite a challenge for the new Conservative group and its leadership.  Democracy is not good at promoting managerial merit and the leader will have a difficult job in putting together a Cabinet.  Those with the time do not necessarily have the technical competence or the intellectual fire power to do the job.  Not all can afford to fill a Cabinet role, given the loss of income if they are still in work.  It is also important to have a geographic spread with the exception of the City which has, yet again, not returned any Conservatives!

With all the calls on his time, the leader will have to rely on a good deputy to help keep in touch with the group and issues generally and spreading the workload between those with the time, talent, political skills and inclination is always quite  challenge.

What of the new Conservative faces?  There are certainly some interesting and capable names who are new to the council (in alphabetical order):  David Bartholomew, a younger local businessman representing Sonning Common;  Kevin Bulmer, a 55-year old local businessman and parish councillor representing Goring;  Yvonne Constance, a corporate lawyer representing Shrivenham; Simon Hoare, a younger local businessman and experienced West Oxon district councillor representing Witney West & Bampton; Richard Langridge, a local businessman and experienced West Oxon district councillor representing Witney North & East.

There are also the ones to watch from the last council: Arash Fatemian, Anthony Gearing, Caroline Newton and David Nimmo Smith.

I can see two immediate problems for Hudspeth:

  • geographical balance in the Cabinet may prove hard when a lot of the younger talent seems to reside in his own patch.  Cries of cronyism will always arise from those who did not get the job they thought they deserved!  
  • He still has several fully paid-up members of the awkward squad – I speak from recent experience!  They may be tempted to seek preferment or favours for their own patch in return for loyalty.  In my view they need firm handling and the other group members should be a part of this process.

Political leadership in Oxfordshire in the next four years is not going to be a bed of roses but life would be boring if it was!

My next blog will turn to the national position following the local elections and I will venture some advice for David Cameron, Grant Shapps and Eric Pickles.

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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