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Cornwall Council’s Cabinet: rainbow alliance or kiss of death?

Cornwall Council’s Cabinet: rainbow alliance or kiss of death?

Posted on May 19, 2013

I hear that the Liberal Democrat/Independent alliance at Cornwall Council has approached the Labour Party and MK offering each of them a place on the ten-person ‘rainbow’ (some colours missing) Cabinet. These parties have until 10am tomorrow to respond. Negotiations over Cornwall Council’s administration have been going on since the elections of three weeks ago behind closed doors with more than a whiff of the old smoke-filled rooms about them (thought presumably no longer smoke-filled for elf and safety reasons).

The ‘rainbow’ proposal was put forward by the Liberal Democrats but has already been shattered by the Tories who refused to sign up after dithering around for a few days while they desperately looked for a reason to refuse. Not finding one, they just opted out. This was predictable and, for them, the right decision. Having been royally stuffed by the Lib Dems over the previous four years, taking the brunt of the blame for council cuts, losing 19 seats and plummeting from first party to third in the elections, the Tories have decided that a period of opposition would help them distance themselves from the impact of central government cuts.

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, were rather reluctant ‘victors’ in the elections, limiting their loss to just two seats and coming out as the top dogs – just. This presented them with a conundrum. For the last three years they’ve posed as fierce opponents of the cuts their own party in London was forcing on Cornwall Council. But, as the largest party, they could hardly continue with this cynical opportunist strategy. So they’ve come over all statesmanlike and hit on the ploy of a ‘rainbow alliance’, calling on all parties to come together to work for the good of Cornwall. This has the benefit of spreading the pain and sharing the responsibility for another two or more years of cuts and, perhaps, helping to avoid the meltdown that by rights awaits them in the 2015 General Election.

So what are the advantages for MK or Labour if they take up this offer of a Cabinet seat? They boil down to influence and responsibility. Given the highly centralised concentration of decision-making in the Council’s Cabinet, a place there carries the enticing promise of a say in Council policy. Our society deludes itself that individual politicians exert power; they’re not constrained by powerful pressure groups, steered by bureaucrats, structured by the demands of the economy, or (in the case of local government), limited by the iron cage of central government rules and regulations about what they can or cannot do. Yet unfortunately, the power of politicians at County Hall/Lys Kernow is greatly exaggerated.

In MK’s case, their numbers will give them little sway over the combined 70 odd strong Lib Dem/Independent groups and the eight (or nine if Labour declines) Lib Dem/Independents in the Cabinet. They will always be outvoted if and when it comes to the crunch. Had those 140 extra voters plumped for MK in those five wards and boosted them to nine rather than four councillors then they’d have possessed a bit more numerical and moral clout. But they didn’t. And they don’t.

Furthermore, from within the rarified corridors of County Hall, it may look statesmanlike and responsible to sign up to the Lib Dems’ manifesto. But how will this play on the top deck of the Number 18 bus from Camborne to Redruth? MK must not underestimate the deep disaffection and alienation of a large minority from the political process. Tying themselves to the Lib Dems runs the risk of making it even more difficult to counter the ‘you’re all the same’ arguments that are met on the doorstep. It also of course carries the danger of handing the protest vote over entirely to Ukip.

It is unclear which bits of the MK manifesto or which MK policies the Lib Dem/Independent coalition proposes to adopt, if any. It seems rather a waste to abandon MK’s manifesto in return for the anodyne and pathetic wish-list of well-meaning aphorisms offered by the Lib Dems. Moreover, does joining with them now mean turning a blind eye to their record in 2005-09? Remember, this is the party that gave us the St Dennis incinerator, the bottomless pit of Newquay airport subsidies, an unfit for purpose children’s care service, the prospect of up to 67,000 houses in the next 20 years, almost doubling the rate of population growth, and the unitary authority. And are we supposed to forget their cynical deal with the Tories back in February to cut another 300 jobs merely to save households 40p a week on their council tax, a ploy that incidentally miserably backfired with the electorate? Is all this now just history?

There are several other disadvantages that might be taken into consideration before leaping into a de-facto alliance with the Lib Dems and Independents.

First, we must not forget that the Lib Dems are a party of government at Westminster. Won’t supporting them here be seen as akin to supporting the politics of austerity that their party is imposing in turn on the Council?

Second, whoever ‘runs’ Cornwall Council is being handed a very poisoned chalice indeed. Obviously the Lib Dems want to share the responsibility for the coming cuts as widely as possible. But councillors face an ominous Hobson’s choice of cuts or privatisation. Whoever is in the Cabinet will have to grapple with this non-choice very soon. People do not understand local government finances. They will blame whoever imposes cuts or privatises services. Is a seat in the Cabinet worth that unpopularity?

Third, neither the Lib Dems nor the Independents offer a principled resistance to developer-led planning that is making Cornwall a haven for second homes and such a soft touch for developers. Both groups contain some high population growth enthusiasts. Both are utterly split on this issue. Neither offer credible policies on the issue. Being a part of the administration surely makes it more difficult for a principled opposition to this process to emerge.

Fourth, MK’s involvement in the Cabinet would give the Lib Dems a much-needed ‘Cornish’ dimension, which on their past record is thoroughly undeserved. There is a wider point here. To borrow from Lenin, shouldn’t the long-term strategy of MK be to support the Lib Dems ‘in the same way the rope supports a hanged man’. The Lib Dems sweep up the soft ‘Cornish’ vote and lie like a particularly fat and stubborn cow blocking the road to autonomy and self-determination. While they exist as a credible receptacle for such votes, MK will struggle to achieve a breakthrough. Will joining the Lib Dems in what will inevitably be another austerity administration lead to their early and thankful demise or give them yet another breath of life?

Finally, if MK joins the Cabinet and Labour doesn’t (and why should they given the reasons above) then isn’t MK handing Labour (or the Greens) the chance to pose as opponents of central government cuts? As those cuts continue to bite and disaffection rises it will be Labour who potentially benefits. This will be despite the fact their councillors in places they run little differently from any others in meekly succumbing to the cuts/privatisation dilemma and accepting the logic of austerity?

If Labour decides to join with the Lib Dems, Independents and MK, then there might be less damage although I would sill argue the long-term disadvantages outweigh any short-term political gain. If the ‘rainbow’ had included all colours then a seat in the Cabinet may have made sense. But it’s surely all or none. If Labour stays out and MK goes in, then MK is in real danger of committing political suicide. It allows Labour to do what the Lib Dems did in the past three years and play the opposition card. As austerity bites, MK opposition to the attack on the poor will lose its credibility. It muzzles the clear anti-austerity/pro-Cornwall message that needs to be made.

Acting ‘responsibly’ has its time and place. But this isn’t it. What’s needed is principled opposition. This is not the same as opposition in principle though. If the Lib Dem/Independent Cabinet were to pursue individual policies from the MK manifesto then it should be supported. However, it does mean assessing things in the light of long-term objectives and not being seduced by an enticing offer of a place at top table made as the result of short-term political manoeuvring.