Behind The Headlines: Four more years of what?

editorial image

In the coming days, the Conservative administration at County Hall will be re-starting the engines to begin what will be a third successive term in office, possibly with some new faces within the high command and certainly overseeing a rather different looking authority to its predecessor.

Perhaps the stand-out statistic in the 2013 poll is 30.96 per cent, the dismally low turnout figure for Northamptonshire this time around and one that gives the Tory detractors a well-worn if rather pointless argument that it polled 35 per cent of all votes or, worse still, barely 12 per cent of a would-be electorate of about 530,000.

So why couldn’t people be persuaded to come out and exercise their democratic right to determine how they would like to see services such as social care, libraries and highways run for the next four years? They certainly couldn’t blame the weather, the dark nights or even some deep-rooted fundamental opposition to the election of the type which blighted the turnout for the police commissioner poll last November. One alibi? It was the first poll since 1993 that didn’t clash with a General or European election.

Anecdotally and through social media sites, a lot of people clearly felt that, in their ward at least, councillors were invisible while the amount of campaign literature stuck through the letterbox was minimal.

It’s difficult to know, although undoubtedly some wards were busier than others. Lib Dem Brendan Glynane, fighting the new division of Delapre & Rushmere, won a seat many observers felt he was destined to lose, but the word is that he fought a tireless campaign which reaped dividends.

The wedge of comments posted beneath the Chronicle & Echo’s election coverage at the weekend gave, as ever, an insightful cross-section of opinion, but one that was, if anything, flavoured by a raging from the left-leaning readers about the miserable turnout figure that fell on deaf ears from more right-thinking readers whose view was, to quote one, “A win’s a win! Get over it!”.

So what of the individual parties? The Conservatives have every right to be very pleased with their performance. Boundary changes meant there are now 57 seats rather than the 73 beforehand which may have affected some candidates, not least council leader Jim Harker who only slipped in by 174 votes in his new Ise division after years of landslides in “Kettering Rural”.

The Conservatives still control 63 per cent of the seats, down from 75 per cent beforehand, but an impressive result bearing in mind the mid-term blues of a deficit-reducing Government. A definite mandate in other words and a mandate that was achieved both early and with some ease.

Before May 2, some senior Conservative sources feared their majority could be as little as six or seven seats, in other words no overall control, so to take two out of every three seats is no mean feat. True there were casualties - Andrew Grant, the one-time cabinet member for children’s services (and therefore the man in charge of what turned out to be Northamptonshire’s failed safeguarding services) - being the biggest scalp.

Elsewhere, measuring the relative success or failure of the other main parties - and for the first time we most certainly include UKIP here - is trickier. Take Labour, back as the official Opposition for the first time in four years. And yet 11 seats seems disappointing, considering the party had 20 going into the 2009 poll when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. Has the party not yet made the breakthrough back into Northamptonshire, was the UKIP factor at play here or could the party’s campaigners simply not persuade some of its natural supporters to go and vote for them?

Oddly, the Lib Dems, while no longer the official Opposition, secured six seats on the council and must surely be delighted with this. The early poll results looked dire with some councillors mustering only double figure totals (one was just 3.5 per cent of the vote). But after Councillor Glynane made it over the line in Delapre & Rushmere, others followed, including the veteran Lib Dem councillor Sally Beardsworth. Party supporters probably wouldn’t admit it now, but there were plenty of people predicting that Councillor Beardsworth might be the only one left on the night. As it was, a carefully targeted campaign was repaid by five victories in Northampton and one in Towcester.

This was UKIP’s breakthrough election without any doubt. Jim Broomfield took Brackley - prime HS2 territory by the way - early on and was followed later by Desborough and Kingsthorpe North (on a very low turnout). And yet for all that, did they really do that well? The party’s unofficial spokesman for Northamptonshire - Derek Clark MEP - certainly seemed to be playing it down, telling the Chron: “We would have liked a lot more seats. I was hoping for half a dozen-plus”. There were lots of second places, he added, but second place is nowhere in a local election even if it might be a significant indicator at a General.

One Independent now sits on the council and one well-known independent Green - Tony Clarke - has left the stage, as an elected politician at least, after more than 20 years service, including eight as a Labour MP. Will he resurface again? We suspect he might.

Perhaps the most creditable performance of all the minor parties was Dave Green, the Save Our Services candidate, who narrowly trailed the Tories in Duston East. As for the British National Party, they fared very badly indeed polling just double figure totals in most of the divisions they challenged.

So what can we expect for the next four years? Well some things will not change, most notably the financial pressures heaped upon local government generally. Whatever the outcome of the 2015 General Election, the time frames means that situation is unlikely to change before 2017. Social care - improving the dire state of safeguarding and continuing to handle the growing numbers of vulnerable and elderly people in need of help - is likely to be a key concern. But what of the future of other services such as libraries or highways? And will, yet again, the Tories refrain from increasing council tax thus securing their mantra-like claim they have the lowest council tax in the country.

Enterprise may be a buzz word in some local government quarters, but the Tories marriage to the Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership, not least its £6m commitment over three years and support for an office in Brussels, has proved a controversial one. But this may evolve in the next term with the NEP finding its feet on its own, without being funded by council tax payers. Similarly unpopular projects such as the street lights switch-off may yet prove to be winners. As the roll-out of the new street lights continues apace, many more people will surely be saying that yes, actually, this was a scheme worth doing, a “no pain, no gain” initiative that will leave this county with better, more effective and cheaper street lights for years to come.

Finally, can we expect too a change of leadership midway through the next term? Will Jim Harker “do a Tony Blair” and bow out round about the time of the 2015 General Election and, if he does, who will his successor be? Might it be current borough council leader David Mackintosh or will he be engaged on an even higher political stage. Decisions might need to be made there.

Far from upsetting the apple cart, the 2013 county council elections wil go down as one where - contrary to predictions - not all that much changed. The Conservatives comfortably running the show; Labour in Opposition, but probably deep down disappointed at not having made more ground; the Lib Dems still with a foothold on the authority when many though they’d be obliterated; and UKIP finally winning seats, but, even by their own admission, not as many as they would have liked.

It’s a funny business local politics...