There has been a lot of media chatter about how recently elected UKIP councillors have ‘done a deal’ with Labour and the LibDem’s to undermine the Conservative party in Norfolk.
The reality, however, is somewhat different.
UKIP councillor for Swaffham, Paul Smyth, explains what has happened and how UKIP have been the catalyst for removal of the undemocratic ‘strong leader and cabinet’ model of local government and return to the committee system where each councillor can act in the best interests of his constituents and give them a voice
The UKIP Local Election Manifesto stated quite clearly that achieving consensus was a primary objective of UKIP in local government. It’s what makes us different and truly democratic. Instead of posturing and political game playing, UKIP puts its voters and the general public first: “UKIP is unique in local government, because we do not ‘whip’ our councillors to follow party diktats, or toe the party line. Instead, we expect our councillors to represent the wishes of their electors at all times. That means it’s easier to get agreement for the things that really need doing.”
A scan of the internet shows that it would be helpful to explain to the public, and especially to those who voted for UKIP on 2 May, why the UKIP group at Norfolk County Hall has seemingly joined forces with Labour and the Liberal Democrats. First, it is simply not true that these three parties have formed a coalition. They retain their unique Party policies and will continue to promote their different political aims, but what they have achieved together at Norfolk Council will allow them to express their distinctiveness more effectively.
Most of the people commenting on developments in Norfolk are probably unaware of the relevant facts. For instance, they may not appreciate that although the voters of Norfolk elect 84 councillors to the County Council, under the existing Cabinet system of government only 10 councillors (the Council Leader and the small team he or she personally appoints) hold executive authority.
In layman’s terms this means that a tiny group in the Council effectively wields power for 4 years until the next election. During that time, apart from some reserved powers such as agreeing the Council’s budget, the other 74 councillors are powerless to change Cabinet decisions. They can observe, comment on, object to or protest about them, but the tiny Cabinet might simply press on regardless. Hence, the infamous King’s Lynn waste incinerator project has progressed despite overwhelming political and public objections to it, and without a thorough debate by the full Council.
In a Council with a strong majority the Cabinet may reflect the views of the dominant Party but it excludes those of other elected councillors, which clearly hinders actual democracy. As UKIP champions bringing power back to the people it is logical that the Party would seek to replace the Cabinet system of governance with a more representative one. As elsewhere in the country, the 2 May elections produced a dramatic change in Norfolk’s political landscape removing a large Conservative majority (60/84) and returning a broader spread of councillors (40 Conservative, 15 UKIP, 14 Labour, 10 Lib-Dem, 4 Green and one independent).
Importantly, of the votes cast in Norfolk some 67% went to non- Conservative candidates. It is therefore unsurprising the so-called opposition groups had no desire to be governed by a Conservative-led minority administration and in the hiatus following an abortive Council meeting on 13 May, UKIP participated in negotiations to find a way forward, applying a common sense approach the Party wishes to pride itself on.
There was consensus among the negotiating groups that a Committee system of government would address the democratic deficit in Norfolk. Such a system would give each elected councillor a degree of influence (currently denied to them) and apportion Council appointments in line with group numbers. If it had been possible the collaborating parties would have sought rapid change, but legal (Local Government Act) and Council constitutional constraints prohibited such a move.
The earliest a Committee system could be adopted would be at the next Council Annual General Meeting in May 2014. That restriction dictated that an interim Cabinet would be needed to run the Council pending the due process necessary to allow the implementation of a more democratic system of government. So bringing power back to the people could not be achieved without a delay and an unavoidable compromise.
Those who believe that UKIP should have led the temporary Cabinet are forgetting that would have needed the agreement of all the other parties involved – a concession the market simply would not bear. It is naive to ignore the impact unwelcome and inaccurate stereotypes about UKIP might have. The mainstream parties in British politics are seemingly stunned by UKIPʼs rapid rise and are perhaps unsure of how to react to that success, so the idea that UKIP would simply be welcomed to local government and immediately endorsed as the first among equals is an illusion.
A dogmatic demand for UKIP to be ʻleaderʼ because it had one more seat than the next ʻoppositionʼ group (and that – after four recounts – by a single vote on 2 May) would have achieved nothing positive at all. Rather, given the prize of replacing Cabinet rule with Committee government was so great the pragmatic approach taken by UKIP and the other parties in Norfolk was the correct decision. By acting in the common good, working collaboratively, negotiating reasonably and developing trust, UKIP has helped move Norfolk County Council in the right direction. It has also established a better reputation for itself than that of merely being a Party of objection and protest.
In Norfolk, UKIP is working with other parties to bring about a sea-change in the way the Council is run. The new Cabinet will only last for a year and, as UKIP’s only re-elected Councillor pointed out, should oversee its own demise. There is no coalition, nor has a vote for UKIP been wasted. County Councillors have 4 years in which to work for the people of Norfolk and the temporary transitional arrangements UKIP has helped create should lead to greater democracy, accountability and transparency in local government.
The change to a Committee system of governance should also increase the opportunities for UKIP to promote policies which a Cabinet could simply ignore. The question ‘What difference will UKIP make at Norfolk County Council?’ has had an early answer – it will help bring power back to the people.