Today we have the intriguing prospect of finding out who will be the new leader of Southend Council. It is intriguing because as I write we don’t know who that is and what behind the scenes deals are being attempted to ensure a particular outcome when it comes to electing the leader, who will then have in his/her power to choose members for important roles in Council and influence policy. How significant this is I have not fully figured out but in the “normal” cases (which until recently was the norm) it was the leader of the political party commanding an overall majority in the Council. The group the leader is in charge of then formulates / dictates Council policy until the next Council election, with its new mix of councilors, with the leader generally from the party with the most members.
My interest in local politics does not go back long enough to recall what happened when there were Conservative and Liberal coalitions and Liberal and Labour coalitions when otherwise the Conservative party that normally had the largest number of councilors was in power. Obviously there would have been a degree of compromise but was this for the better? This time, while having done well at the recent election, Lib Dems will have less influence than Independents when deciding on the leader. But I do recall “the Rainbows” comprising Independent, Labour and Lib Dem members, later added to by ex-UKIPs (who had been expelled from that party). When the Conservatives did eventually get more seats it was not enough to command an overall majority and they formed an alliance with UKIP (at significant cost) to get power. It begs the question: is coalition better than single party when it comes to local politics and should we expect a better vision for the town or a mish mash?
Most would have predicted in the elections just gone that the Conservatives would lose their overall majority (which happened) and there will be a re-emergence of the Rainbow coalition, which may or may not happen. I got the first bit right and other than expecting life to get interesting with the prospects of behind closed doors negotiations being done regarding the nature of any Rainbow coalition (who knows what has taken place) has not yet happened, at least to my knowledge. Last time Independents had the largest number of councilors and were in a position to elect the leader from their number. This time it is Labour and, for reasons depending which spin you want to put on in, the Indies are not amenable to the idea of serving under a Labour leader. Besides which, and according to my spies, despite wanting the dastardly Tories out, if one were to grill Independent members they would be more Tory inclined than Labour. Also personalities have changed. While Ron Woodley leads the Independent group (although as one member assured me “I am NOT Ron’s lapdog”) it has been all change at the top of what my spies tell me is a demoralized Conservative group (Tony Cox (leader) and Meg Richardson (deputy)) and with Ian Gilbert (leader), Anne Ryan Jones (deputy) and Matt Dent (chair) of the Labour group, leading one to wonder, along with the new intake, what are the personality dynamics when it comes to negotiating. I should add all those I named I know. I think they will serve well. I wish them well.
So who will emerge as leader of the council at the end of the day? If it were to be Tony Cox (hitherto an unlikely possibility) or Ian Gilbert (who it might be if such a thing as protocol counted) then the king makers will surely be the Independents who will no doubt make demands concerning their support or maybe it will be Ron Woodley. The jury is out whether a coalition works better than a single party in charge, but relevant given the notion that local government should not be about mere politics. As for king making, I hope it will be on the basis NOT of political postulating but rather on who will serve the people best. If it does come down as a contest between Tony and Ian, it will be interesting to see how Independent the Independents really are. Soon we will know who will be leader!
Update: we now know who the leader of the Council is and can only guess at the discussions that took place prior to the meeting of the Council, which among other things needed to decide on who its leader is. Watching on the Council webcast, I was surprised at the simplicity of what took place. Each councillor was invited to choose his / her preference from a selection of three nominations: Tony Cox, Ian Gilbert and Ron Woodley. The plan was after the first round of votes the candidate with the least votes would drop out and there would be a second round. Votes were cast, as far as I could make out, on party lines (with the Lib Dems siding with Labour). It meant Ron Woodley dropped out for the second round. In the end Tony Cox got 21 votes against Ian Gilbert’s 19, with 11 abstentions (from what I could make out from the Independent Group). An interesting outcome with the Independents yet to declare their hand whether to support the Conservatives or the opposition when it comes to voting on Council business, but knowing full well the likely outcome of their decision to abstain. While against expectation the Conservatives appear to be in the driving seat when it comes to setting Council policy, forcing the agenda etc., they will need some of the opposition NOT to oppose them if they are to succeed!
Update 10/05/19: Now that the dust is beginning to settle, or has it given the hoo-ha now being seen on social media? I should tie up some loose ends. One friend expressed her displeasure over the Independent group sell out by commenting: “they done what they done because they could not get their way and blackmailed Labour and LibDem so they could have Ron Woodley has leader. They throw a issy fit and was acting childish. They have made themselves look idiots and not to be trusted. Voters will think twice before voting Independents now. They acted against what people voted for. Now Tories are in even though they lost 8 seats. Voters are angry like I am. Come next year we will see a demise of Independents who could lose quite a lot of seats“. I can’t speak for the Independents of course but might argue theirs was an independent action, not wanting to be committed to either of the main parties agendas and voting freely on issues according to their merits and not necessarily en bloc – we will soon see of course! Moreover, while it true they have done well because people didn’t like the Tories, arguably they didn’t like Labour either and why should they support them over the Tories? I look forward to hearing what my three Independent ward councillor friends have to say when we next meet! The Tories claim not to have sought deals with other parties and were bracing themselves for a period in opposition to a rainbow coalition, but now set to do their duty. One irony is the Independents have proved to be king makers on two fronts. Firstly, by abstaining they allowed the Tories in. But it was the one arguably true Independent, Stephen Aylen who in the end was the deciding factor. If he had voted Ian rather than Tony it would have been a dead heat and who knows what then? Finally, returning to the meeting that I later learned was titled “mayor making“, the mayor was duly elected, according to the tradition of longest serving councillor who had not been mayor previously. So congratulations John Lamb, and I now know why he had stood down as leader, although some say he didn’t want to drink from a poisoned chalice and to my friend Mark Flewitt, who now becomes his deputy.