Cheshire East Labour will remember May 2019 as a memorable month. Here, we explain why…
May 2019 – Local Elections
Every 4 years, Cheshire East Borough Council, has “all-out” elections to elect it’s 82 members. And back in 2015 during the last set of elections, the Tories cemented their grip on the Council. There, they won 53 of those 82 seats. In that time the Tories never lost a decision put to Council.
So… you have a comfortable majority on the Council, pretty much any decision can be rubber-stamped in without much resistance. What do you do? It seems the wrong thing – over and over again. Whatever went on under the last leader Cllr Rachel Bailey (and the leader before that, Michael Jones) led to the police opening 8 separate criminal investigations. These were for things like corruption and fraud. Not acceptable. Since May 2015, Cheshire East Council has appeared in the famous Rotten Borough section of the magazine Private Eye a massive 22 times! Even winning Rotten Borough of the Year once!
Not surprisingly, we went to the electorate with this message that something has to change, that this cannot be tolerated. A big shift of power was needed at the May 2019 local elections and that, amazingly, is what we got.
The Tories lost 19 seats to reduce their total to 34. Still the largest party to Labour’s 25 (a gain of 9) and the Independent’s (shortened to Indy from now on) 19 (from 11) but under the required magic number of 42 to have an outright majority.
What did that result mean for the Tories?
This result moved the Council to being under “No Overall Control”. This meant that no one party or group could say they were going to run the Council without support from elsewhere. The Conservatives could not elect a Council Leader and the cabinet without finding extra votes first.
What did that result mean for Labour?
Moving from 16 to 25 was a great achievement. The big gains came in the towns of Cheshire. As well as our 25, the number of Councillors elected under a residents group, hyperlocal party or a straight-up Indy rose to 19. This gave, in theory, a way in for Labour to run the Council with the Indys as the 42 magic number could be reached.
What DID happen?
The Indy Group held talks with the Tories and Labour. The Indys have been campaigning for a change to the way the Council is governed for some time. The Tories have usually flat-out rejected as, at that time, it wouldn’t have been in their interest to hand-over parts of their power. This opened it up for the Labour Group to reach a consensus. The Labour Group and the Indy Group announced on Monday 13th May that they would form a transitional cabinet. The Council can not be legally changed over to a committee system of governance until an Annual General Meeting which are held in May.
Huh? Cabinets? Committees? What are these?
The Council is currently run under a Cabinet system, similar to the one used by the UK Government. The elected Council Leader can choose “portfolio” holders (comparable to Secretaries of State in Parliament). These, along with the Deputy Leader form the Cabinet. The Cabinet drive most of the decisions made at Council Meetings which are then voted on by members. Members are usually whipped by their parties to make sure the measures pass through (hence why you need a majority!). A Committee system would abolish the Cabinet system and instead introduce a number of committees to run the Council. Who sits on these committees would be proportional to the number the councillors a party or group has on the Council. The Indy Group have argued that this creates much greater transparency and would involve more of the Councillors in important decisions.
May 22nd – First full post-elections Council meeting
Cheshire East Labour weren’t expecting to be electing the Council Leader from within it’s own. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially given the solid grip the Tories had before the election. But, at full Council on May 22nd 2019, we did just that. Cheshire East Council elected Cllr Sam Corcoran as leader with 43 votes. Cllr Janet Clowes (Wybunbury), new leader of the Conservative Group on Cheshire East also contested the leadership but only won 25 votes (hang on, don’t the Tories have 34 councillors??).
You can see who is on the transitional cabinet by going to https://www.cheshireeast.gov.uk/council_and_democracy/your_council/cabinet_members/cabinet_members.aspx. It is worth mentioning that the Council has a number of scrutiny committees and they will all be chaired by Tory Councillors. By allowing the opposition to scrutinise Council decisions, this will create more transparency. Before 2019, the Tories ran both the scrutiny committees and the Council so were effectively only scrutinising themselves!
What happens now?
It remains to be seen. It feels like there is a lot of damage to undo first. Getting to the bottom of all the open criminal investigations started under the Tories watch is a great example. Many in the new Cabinet are wondering what skeletons they will find in the closet left behind by the previous administration. It will be an interesting 4 years, that is for sure!