South Cambridgeshire Conservatives collapse at the council elections

Summary

The scale of their collapse, and the size of the victory by their Liberal Democrat opponents in South Cambridgeshire caught many – myself included – by surprise

The eleven councillors that remain standing on top of the pile of political rubble that was the great institution of South Cambridgeshire Conservatives might well be wondering what hit them at the elections on 03 May 2018 – a set of elections that saw all council seats up for election under the 4-yearly model of elections they have. In Cambridge City, we have council elections in three of every four years – and a further election for the county council in the gap.

Overnight, the Conservatives went from having 36 councillors to their opponents’ collective total of 21, to having just 11 councillors to 30 councillors from the Liberal Democrats, with 2 for Labour and 2 independents. Note the restructure of South Cambridgeshire District Council meant there were fewer wards, and more multi-seat wards.

And it was all over the local papers

…with much more yellow/orange political paint spilling out everywhere – and even a dash of red added to the new purple patch in Cambourne, west of Cambridge City. The red blob is the seat of Bassingbourn, held by Labour – which also has a strong and politically stubborn Green Party contingent too.

“So Prime Minister, how much of an impact did your racist Go Home vans and your unlawful deportations of Windrush citizens and the shambles of your Brexit policies play in the collapse of your party’s presence in the glorious economic and intellectual powerhouse of South Cambridgeshire?”

This incident a week before the polls didn’t help matters.

Accordingly, the local media couldn’t ignore it.

The candidate concerned was immediately suspended and denounced by his fellow Conservatives, and in the end did not get elected. But this combined with the headlines around Jeremy Corbyn in my view only sought to drag democracy through the mud to the point where no one wins. Labour activist Rachel Megan Barker in London spells out in raw and sobering detail how the Labour vote was understandably hit.

The problem for all political parties in this era of social media is they are unable to control social media pages and blogs that proclaim to be aligned to one party or another, yet still get tarred by it. I’ve seen examples from across the political matrix. No established political party has got a completely clean pair of shoes when it comes to foul and abusive language online – or worse, in politics.

“Woz it Brexit wot lost it?”

It certainly had an impact. 2 years ago, Heidi hosted a number of packed out meetings with hundreds of concerned constituents. The below was one of them.

Heidi Allen MP at South Cambridgeshire Hall, Cambourne. 02 July 2016.

But it was not the only issue – and it’s lazy political reporting to assume this was the only issue. As with local elections, the ‘surprising results’ indicate something much more local as an issue. In this case, it has been a series of controversial developments from the Government-sponsored Greater Cambridge Partnership – the former ‘City Deal’.

Protests against the proposed Cambourne-Cambridge busway by residents from villages on the western edge of Cambridge, and Newnham ward in Cambridge.

With the majority of the voting seats on the Greater Cambridge Partnership Board and Assembly going to Conservative councillors, they are the ones who can outvote everyone else. Hence they have gotten the blame. The leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert, representing the Labour Party, don’t have councillors in any of the wards in and around Cambridge that are negatively affected by some of the proposed big infrastructure projects in South Cambridgeshire, so there is no political price for them to pay.

A textbook ground operation by the Liberal Democrats?

In party political circles, opponents of Liberal Democrats accuse them of playing very dirty in their campaigning tactics. The internet is full of accusations from even a simple online search. Not being close to the ground this time around, I can’t comment on what happened in the villages. However, although the headline from last year’s county council elections was the Conservatives regaining their political majority, in the South Cambridgeshire area, it was the Liberal Democrats that got the most votes.

…which was true, though the margin of their lead was under 80 votes!

Yet given how the Conservatives were tearing each other to bits over Brexit, and furthermore in complete political turmoil over the Windrush cases that ultimately led to the fall of the Home Secretary, the background music for the Conservatives nationally was not good.

Furthermore, the print press was making a very big deal about potholes in the road. This was despite the launch of the county council’s ‘dragon patcher’.

But not everyone was convinced

And with the Conservatives running the district council, county council, county mayor, county police & crime commissioner and being in office in Westminster & Whitehall (with DUP parliamentary support), there was literally no one else to take responsibility for the state of the roads.

Sarah Cheung Johnson, who came close in 2017 was victorious in 2018 for the Liberal Democrats. Furthermore, they had the people on the ground to deliver party literature.

“Didn’t Labour do anything?”

They did – but for whatever reason it didn’t seem to pay dividends despite a noticeable increase in campaigning in Waterbeach, Fen Ditton, Fulbourn, Histon, Impington and Cambourne. Only the last of the three returned a Labour councillor.

Working out what the seat spread would have been under proportional representation is not so straight forward due to the presence of multi-seat wards – where each ward can have more than one seat representing it. For example ‘Fen Ditton and Fulbourn’, and Cambourne respectively had three each. But bundling all of the votes together and dividing them by percentage share gives this:

SouthCambs2018Stats

Compare the above with the actual results of:

  • Lib Dems – 30
  • Conservative – 11
  • Labour – 2
  • Independent – 2

In Cambridge, both the Greens and Conservatives took 20% of the vote at Cambridge City Council. Neither polled any seats.

With elections every four years, the Liberal Democrats have the chance to sink some very deep political and community roots – but there are some traps ahead

With political power comes political responsibility. The Liberal Democrats will also have to select representatives for the boards of the Combined Authority (part of the county mayoral infrastructure – which they opposed on principle), and the Greater Cambridge Partnership (which their counterparts in Cambridge City when in power, along with former MP Julian Huppert helped negotiate). That means – as is likely – that Cllr Bridget Smith becomes leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, she will also become a board member of the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership and will be much more influential on what future infrastructure projects get built.

It also means that Cllr Smith and Cllr Lewis Herbert can *outvote* the now lone Conservative on the Partnership Board. It’s been a bit of a poisoned chalice with very few Conservative councillors on the county council seeming enthusiastic participants on the Board. Former Councillor Francis Burkitt who stood down from his seat on South Cambridgeshire District Council at the elections, was much more proactive both as a member and a chairperson. From a ministerial perspective I can imagine that there is a massive political incentive for them to scrap the partnership in its entirety and fold it all into the administrative infrastructure of the county mayor – currently held by Conservative James Palmer. I can imagine Mayor Palmer would welcome such a move – not least it would get rid of another tier of local administration. However, the systems of accountability for the county mayor are far too weak. It remains to be seen what the Mayor’s review of local government infrastructure recommends.

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