May 14, 2021 4.46 pm This story is over 7 months old

The local elections: Were they really just about potholes and fly tipping? — John Marriott

Is Lincolnshire such a Conservative voting county?

If you think that this will be just another article about ‘thanks for getting Brexit done’ or about the ‘vaccine bounce’ or another dose of Johnson and Starmer bashing, you would be wrong. I will leave the deep analysis to others.

This article is about the LOCAL elections, supposedly about LOCAL issues. Were they really only about “potholes and fly tipping” as the Tory county leader, Cllr Martin Hill, claimed that the voters had told him? If that’s all what local government means to you, with officers and councillors on inflated salaries and allowances, that is rather sad. If so, then perhaps you should stop reading now.

First a word or two about the elections for the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). My views on this post are well known. However, it is clear to me now that the idea of putting one person in charge of scrutinising policing is unfortunately not going to go away.

I have written before about abolishing the role and apparently, when questioned by The Lincolnite, at least two of the five PCC candidates replied that, if elected, they would do just that. The question I therefore ask is why they decided to stand for election in the first place?

Having listened to their replies when questioned, I really do wonder how much some of them actually knew about policing in general, or even how much they would be able to influence how it was delivered in the county. In all honesty, some were probably just there to fly the flag, although they would never admit this.

With that in mind, it made sense that the present incumbent was re-elected quite convincingly, without recourse to the second preference vote. You would have expected him to have learned a bit about what the job actually entailed, although, knowing the county, it could equally be argued that it had as much to do with the party for whom he was standing.

Not that his first term went swimmingly. Does anyone remember the tale of the new Chief Constable, who never was? Having worked with him when we were both members of the administration group that ran the County Council between 2013 and 2017, he struck me as a reasonably competent individual.

How much he will be able to be his own man and how much he will be influenced by Home Secretary remains to be seen. One of the features of this year’s election, the third to take place since the system was introduced in 2012, was the apparent demise of the independent PCC. Of the 39 positions up for grabs in England and Wales, the Tories won 30, Labour 8 and Plaid Cymru 1. At least, at 31%, the turnout was a little more respectable this time.

There were also delayed elections for the City of Lincoln Council. I really don’t know why they still elect a third of their council in three years out of four, normally saving the fourth for the County Council elections. Judging by the figures, which also delivered it nearly 9,000 of the 30,000 County Council votes it obtained, it’s clear that for the Labour Party Lincoln offers the only vestige of power in an otherwise Conservative county at district council level.

The Lib Dems managed to win a seat, the first they have had for a number of years, probably, from my own experience, by throwing “the kitchen sink” at the ward in question, as the Council Leader eloquently put it. (Yes, Ric, that’s what non-Tory and Labour parties have to do round here to get anywhere – I bet the Lib Dems also threw a few sinks around in Gainsborough to get their three County Council seats!) Now that UKIP has departed the scene, it’s rather nice to have another party represented other than the dynamic duo at City Hall.

As for the County Council elections, it was very much business as usual, the Conservative variety, of course. Since its foundation in 1974, Lincolnshire County Council has only twice been under no overall control. The first occasion was in 1993 when the Tories lost their overall majority, and the Labour and Lib Dem groups formed a short-lived administration.

The second time was in 2013 when a large number of UKIP members were elected, all of them disappearing four years later, with a couple becoming and returning as Conservatives. During that period the Tories were able then to continue in power with the help of our small Lib Dem group and three independents.

With 54 seats out of 70, there will, as was the case four years ago, be precious little that the opposition (Labour 4, Lib Dems 3, Independents 9) can do to influence things and, judging by an average turnout of around 30% not that many of you seem to be bothered.

There was not much evidence of an election taking place where I live in North Hykeham. I did get a combined leaflet from the Conservative candidates for County Council and PCC, so I can now say that I have heard from my local councillor, having chided him last February, and I also got a leaflet from an independent candidate and that was it.

It was a bit different when I used to stand for election. Not only did I try to get at least two election leaflets delivered by hand; but also at least two or three FOCUS leaflets during the year. I also knocked on a few doors as well. You really do have to ask yourself how serious some of our ‘candidates’ really are about actually wanting to win.

Is Lincolnshire such a Conservative voting county?

The answer is probably yes; but not as massively as election results show. Had seats been distributed according to the percentage of votes cast for each party, the Conservatives, with around 55% of the vote, would have won around 38 of the 70 seats, still a workable majority; but not the massive one they currently enjoy.

Even allowing for the customary low turnout in local elections, I reckon that this ratio is about right. Of course, we are not very likely to get a change in the voting system for local elections in a hurry. In fact, the government is thinking of changing the rules so that future PCCs and Regional and City Mayors will also be elected by what is called ‘first past the post’ instead of by first and second preference votes as is the case at present.

I am rather surprised that the Labour Party doesn’t champion a change in the voting system. After all, it got 31,240 votes last week compared with the Tories’ 98,570 and ended up with four seats, all in the City of Lincoln. The Tories got 55.4% of the votes and were rewarded with 77% of the seats. By my reckoning, Labour’s performance should have entitled it to around 12 seats.

Ironically, the only other party that actually did quite well out of the current system was those champions of a change in the voting system, the Lib Dems, whose still active base around Gainsborough yielded three seats. Using the same calculation as I did for Labour, the Lib Dems’ 5.1% overall should have given them two seats at the most.

The real difficulty in making the voting system reflect the relative support for all parties is that there is clearly a need to maintain the link between the councillor and their division. Possibly something like the Alternative Vote, which was rejected in a referendum nearly ten years ago, while not strictly PR or even the second preference vote as used in PCC elections might be the answer in some closely fought areas, or even keeping the present system for most seats and having a ‘top up’ system as in the Scottish and Welsh Parliamentary and Senedd elections might work. Whatever system you adopt, baring a political earthquake, I cannot honestly see the Conservatives not being the largest party or group around here.

As I wrote at the start of this piece, for many voters the elections around here were probably not really about schools, social care and the environment. They should have been; but, more likely they were more a reflection on national issues. 

Local government at any level can do little to change things if central government isn’t in favour. Councils like Lincolnshire have to a greater extent morphed into commissioners rather than direct providers of services; most schools now take their orders from the Education Secretary rather than the Local Education Authority.

I am also suspicious of how much autonomy the 30 Conservative PCCs will have when the Home Secretary casts her beady eye over their activities. Perhaps I am just being paranoid. I hope so. 

Ever more reliance on the discredited Council Tax to plug the holes created by austerity has left many councils in dire straits. The fact that Lincolnshire can still provide services to a reasonable standard is great credit to both councillors of all political persuasion and officers. However, it could be a great deal better.

We could streamline our councils and reform our local government finance. We could devolve more power to local councils instead of relying on individuals to make a difference. This will only happen if local government grasps the nettle and puts its own house in order.

Then, with elections riding on more than ‘potholes and fly tipping’, we might start to get a much higher turnout at elections and some councillor candidates, who are serious about making a real difference.

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John was a councillor for thirty years, finally retiring in 2017. A schoolteacher by profession, he served on the North Hykeham Town Council (1987-2011), the North Kesteven District Council (1987-1999, 2001-2007) and the Lincolnshire County Council (2001-2017). He was also a County Council member of the former Lincolnshire Police Authority for eight years until standing down in 2009. In 1997 he was the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham. He is currently not a member of any political party.