Have UKIP exposed a major political faultline in Cambridgeshire?
The headline results don’t look good for any of the three main parties. (Phil Rogers has crunched the numbers here) The Conservatives have lost both their group leader (Nick Clarke, losing his Fulbourn seat to the Lib Dems) and control of the county council. The Lib Dems have had their presence slashed from 21 to 14, and Labour, while increasing their presence from 3 to 7, failed to take some of the key seats that perhaps some would have expected. UKIP on the other hand increased their presence in the north of the county, and now have 12 councillors on the council.
“Yo Pooffles, what was it you were saying about these elections?”
My thoughts were focussed on the city rather than the whole county – but that in part reflects part of the divide between city and county. I can’t help feel the sense that, south of the A14 we look to London rather than look out for all things north of us. The mistake I made was assuming that this election would involve the swapping of seats between the local Labour and Lib Dem types, with the Cambridgeshire Conservatives giving us more of the same under Nick Clarke’s stewardship. The only inkling of a change I suggested was one stemming from the retiring of a third of the existing councillors. I didn’t foresee the gains by UKIP leading to the loss of control of the council. I also didn’t foresee Nick Clarke losing his seat to the Lib Dems.
“Oh well Pooffles, at least you’re being honest.”
The other thing that held up from previous elections was the Green Party’s share of the vote, even though as widely expected their presence in local elected politics their presence was finally vanquished. They still polled 2,470 votes in Cambridge, despite an almost zero campaigning presence. I was one of a few people to pester & poke them into at least the very basics online, such as brief online biographies on their websites and reminding them (& other politicians from the other parties) to respond to the Cambridge Cycle Campaign questionnaire.
“So, people and things of note?”
Amanda’s back. Cllr Amanda Taylor won in Queen Edith’s for the County Council a year after losing her city council seat to Labour. Belinda Brooks-Gordon lost out to independent & former Lib Dem John Hipkin. Dan Ratcliffe came within a whisker of taking the Market ward for Labour. Ian Manning held on in East Chesterton (where Julian Huppert MP was once a councillor) despite a strong challenge from former Lib Dem Clare Blair, now in full Labour colours.
Tweeting Tories Steve Tierney and Samantha Hoy were shot out of the sky. From a ‘young people in politics’ perspective, I think it’s a bit of a shame that Samantha’s no longer on the council – even though I do not share her politics. What’s interesting with her vote is that her core support from her Wisbech North by-election win remained broadly in place. It’s as if the extra percentage points of people that turned up to vote this time around all went to UKIP or the independent candidate. It was I’m also kind of sad that my webmasters Andy Bower and Tim Haire faired so badly in Romsey and Cherry Hinton respectively. The joys of being selected to fight a seat that is traditionally someone else’s stronghold.
The social media wasteland of South Cambridge
One of the things I noticed was that all of the interesting social media exchanges between candidates were from/of those standing on the other side of town. Coleridge remains a social media wasteland, with little incentive from any of the other political parties to encourage Labour’s four councillors to engage on this platform. The lack of diversity (four White males) across the slate of councillors is also noticeable too – not that the other parties were challenging them on this. All of the five parties standing in my ward selected male candidates.
One of the reasons why I go on about social media is because of the long term societal trends. At present, activists from all parties locally tell me that they get next to no interaction from local residents through social media channels. Yet as I’ve mentioned before, are campaigners using social media in a manner that complements their offline activities? That’s a challenge that goes for local campaign groups and charities too. It’s not like young people in particular are not using social media. They are. So why is it that local political parties, community groups and campaign groups are not making nearly as much of an impact with young people locally as they could be?
Kings vs Queens: Turnout
The Kings Hedges ward/division that elected Fiona Onasanya for Labour managed a turnout of 23.5%, while the Queen Ediths ward/division that elected Amanda Taylor managed 40.2%. Why the big difference in turnout? It’s not something that can easily be explained by affluence. The lowest turnout was recorded in the university heartland of Market, while the highest turnout was in West Chesterton – a difference of nearly 20 percentage points.
I had a look at an online map of the county just now, looking at transport links. Scanning the half north of the A14 vs south of the A14 reveals a startling picture of differing transport infrastructure. Cambridge is connected east and west by the A14 above it, as well as by a (run down) railway line going to Ipswich and Norwich. It is connected to London by the M11 motorway and by two rail lines. That’s what happens when you get a permanent secretary at the Department for Transport who used to go to Cambridge and wants an easy journey back to college alumni dinners. It must be true, Sir Humphrey told me on telly. But in places like March, Wisbech, Chatteris and Ramsey in comparison…not nearly as well connected to Cambridge as they could be.
That’s not to say transport alone will solve the problems. The size of Cambridge’s housing problems could lead to developers springing up gated communities close to where improved transport hubs are, which wouldn’t do existing communities any good at all. It’s one of the reasons why I think in my neck of the woods, gated community developments should be banned. I can understand pressure for gated communities in areas of high crime and anti-social behaviour, but as Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire isn’t such an area…exactly.
So…who has that positive vision for the county then?
Well…this is what I’m waiting to find out when the council meets for the first time following the election. For a start, the Conservatives will have to elect a new group leader. That leader will then need to start negotiations with the other parties to form some sort of a coalition or agreement on how to run the council given that no party has overall control. (Con = 32, LD = 14, UKIP = 12, Lab = 7, Ind = 4). Should the Conservatives try to run the council as a minority party or seek some formal coalition/agreement with either the Lib Dems or UKIP? How stable would any of those three arrangements be?
All of this makes the council’s first full meeting on 21 May all the more interesting. So much so that Puffles and I might rock up to see what it’s all about. The two issues that Cambridgeshire County Council has nominal control over are education and transport. I’m interested in education because I am a school governor, and I am interested in transport because I am dependent on public transport, not being a car owner.
Trains and Cambridge
You’ve heard me jump up and down about the Oxford to Cambridge rail link – one that Ed Miliband so publicly backed recently. (Next time he’s back we’re going to ask him about how policy developments on that commitment are going!) But actually it goes further than that.
Once in a generation: A rail prospectus for East Anglia
Remember I mentioned how cut-off the north of Cambridgeshire was from the rest of the county? This prospectus provides a fairly comprehensive blueprint of what to do about it. That’s not to say I don’t have criticisms of it, but at least someone is trying to get people and organisations together. Yet at a county political party level, the fall in the number of seats held by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens (traditionally pro-public transport) can’t have gone unnoticed. In a council where there is now no overall control, smaller parties can have a greater influence. The question is which one will be able to influence the greatest?
Long term impact of the county council election
Nick Clarke had a very strong presence on Cambridgeshire County Council. Now he is gone, as is party control of the council. Two external shocks delivered by the electorate. Not only that, it was a party on its right flank that took advantage. One thing both locally and nationally the Conservatives are going to have to learn very quickly is how to fight off opponents on its right flank – especially one fed by the mainstream press. In the short term, they’ll need to convince the county that it has a core group of competent councillors to take control, and a competent leader to lead the council and be a sound media spokesperson too. Just as Labour have a zero presence outside of Cambridge City, the Conservatives have a zero presence inside it at county council level. (They have one borough councillor – Shapour Meftah in Trumpington on Cambridge City Council).
Interestingly they got a smaller percentage of the vote but got a couple more seats than UKIP. Part of the reason for this is their method of campaigning – concentrating resources on the seats they are most likely to gain/hold rather than spreading resources across a wide area. Hence why the Lib Dems haven’t been seen in the ward I live in. Tactically sound, but it does nothing to enrich the political culture of the county.
That said, part of me thinks that the fall of the Lib Dems at a local council level is bottoming out. It’s as if they have lost most of the seats they were going to lose as a result of going into coalition at a national level. That said, they still lost a third of their seats on the county council – although they held a couple of key battleground seats that could easily have fallen to Labour. It’s still all to play for in the 2014 elections where Labour will go in guns blazing to take hold of Cambridge City Council – the final local council elections before the 2015 general election.
UKIP are here to stay for the next few years unless they implode Kilroy style. Irrespective of what people think of their elected councillors as individuals, them as a party or their policies, they face the same basic challenges that any other political party making the sort of huge gains they did, face. The first is being trying to work out what their new duties and responsibilities are – mindful that not all of them would have expected to have been elected. The second is a reflection of the media headlines about the non-vetting of candidates. UKIP did not have the local party infrastructure to scrutinise the applicants that wanted to stand under its banner.
Part of the challenge they may face is simply getting to know each other as individuals before organising as a co-ordinated body on the council. That goes for other councils where they have a sizeable presence too. Finally, this also means that there are a much greater number of people that the media can now go to in order to get the ‘official’ UKIP line. How do you co-ordinate the views of that many elected representatives in a party that prides itself as being outspoken and straight-talking?
Labour started from an incredibly low base of three councillors during one of their lowest points in the Gordon Brown years. They now have seven councillors, which at least in terms of party morale on the council feels like they are less isolated than before. As the council has no overall control, it will be interesting to see how the Labour group chooses to make its presence felt, as well as how they deal with a UKIP presence that is greater than theirs.
Given that Ed Miliband is promoting his ‘One Nation’ brand, the test for local Labour types is not in Cambridge City, but beyond. Cambourne, Chatteris, Huntingdon, St Ives, March, Wisbech…why such a small Labour presence there? Which one would make a good target town for future elections?
The Green Party
From a plurality of political parties sense, the demise of the local green party has been a depressing affair. Councillors and activists from the three main parties in Cambridge City have all said to me they enjoyed the Greens’ presence on both councils. They didn’t particularly agree with their policies or personalities, but it meant that issues that might otherwise have not been raised, were raised. (Which meant that someone had to formally oppose them).
Back in October 2012 I moaned about the lack of social media presence from the Greens. I made the point then that in the previous local council elections they polled just below 3,000 votes in the city. In the county council elections they polled just over 2,400 – again despite a next-to-zero campaigning presence. This shows that there is a strong residual bedrock of Green Party sympathisers that will vote for the party so long as there is someone standing. In January 2013, Green Party Leader Natalie Ben came to visit – of which I took Puffles along to see what she’d have to say. Over 50 people turned up on a cold January Friday night to meet her. Yet at the same time, a talk organised primarily on social media with Tony Juniper a few weeks ago (who took 3,800 votes for the Greens at the 2010 General Election in Cambridge), only attracted a handful of people.
Let’s wait till the first council meeting and see how things turnout.